Babylon: Social media meets serial killer – who cares about the lack of laughs?

This week Grace watched... Babylon on Channel 4

This week Babylon – the new Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong police drama/comedy – felt very much like the TV all paid-up members of the chuntering classes should hold an opinion on.

TV works like this sometimes. PR-wise, Babylon is the perfect storm of a writing team (Four Lions, Peep Show) who always cause a frisson of intrigue amongst critics. Plus the director Danny Boyle, he of the Olympic 2012 “green and pleasant lands”. Yes, and numerous other fine accomplishments obviously, although if I were to ever meet Boyle in person I would find it hard not to wrap myself around his torso like an affable koala and thank him for that 13-minute “Pandemonium” section where a fake Glastonbury Tor and various other hills and knolls were removed by hundreds of Industrial Revolution workers while Karl Hyde from Underworld led a very British manner of tribal drumming. Boyle makes moments of art that will resonate in my mind for a lifetime.

So too do Armstrong and Bain – found in moments of subtle beauty in Fresh Meat, in the bumptious incredulity of Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan, in the confident weirdness of Radio 4’s That Mitchell and Webb Sound or in Omar from Four Lions, the earnest jihadist one ends up rooting for. Gallows humour so dark that it’s not a laugh but a painful yelp which floods from one’s lips. Bain and Armstrong possess a startling command of Britishness, of the “state we’re in” and of what makes us not terribly “Great”. When some critics said this week that Babylon lacked laughs, it was hard not to reply: “It was an 118-minute tale about a multiple murderer, a pent-up armed response team, Kurd refugees, a loose-cannon rookie officer who we know would clearly go on to kill, public relations, internal bullying, the protocol about informing loved ones of death, ‘the knock’, and all of this underpinned by the paranoid tinder-pile of social media and rolling news. If you wanted a LOL a minute, go to Amazon.com and avail yourself of series 1 and 2 of Rowan Atkinson’s The Thin Blue Line.”

For what it’s worth, I loved Babylon. I loved that I loathed the first 10 minutes, post-assassination No 1, and hated this bolshie dick-swinging armed response team – little more than a gang of thugs themselves – and these stupid bobbies on the beat. And I disliked the notion of under-qualified social-media PR Liz Garvey – played by the enigmatic, pitch-perfect Brit Marling – being shoved in charge of the Metropolitan Police and left to professionally drown. But then with the second and third shooting, I was gripped by Garvey, a former Instagram head honcho, a TED talk star, attempting to switch the police onto a new social-media age where there’s no potential for cover ups or controlling the masses.

“The sniper has a Twitter account, he’s tweeting after he shoots,” Garvey informed Deputy Commissioner Charles Inglis, played by Paterson Joseph. Inglis was irritated he was being bothered with such frippery, “Oh well, take it down then,” he fumed, determined to get on with the matter at hand. But Inglis couldn’t see that Twitter was the matter at hand here. The killer was causing mass panic, controlling his own PR campaign and filling airtime with his post-killing whimsy and blood-splattered ROFLs.

“I’m not spending all afternoon taking this page down, it will be reposted in 5,000 other places, we need to acknowledge it and make the Met the official source,” snapped Garvey. Inglis fumed, impotently. He’s in charge of London’s future safety but is patently yesterday’s man. And within the communications department of the Metropolitan Police, no one seems to know anything truly and beyond doubt. Rumours from social media become in-office Chinese whispers only to be regurgitated in unofficial leaks and then officially denied in press conferences. There was a wonderful black moment when a fourth dead body was reported, then a fifth in quick succession. ‘It’s a spree!’ someone shouted. Then confusion set in over whether the fourth and the fifth murders were in actual fact the same murder reported with different postcodes. The head of PR didn’t know and neither did Commissioner Richard Miller, played fantastically by James Nesbitt. Who is responsible for rising above the hysteria, we had to ask, and knowing the truth if the police are looking for veracity on Twitter? Earlier Nesbitt – after being informed of a death, but not informed it was the death of a police-woman – had roared at his troops: “Why did NO-BODY tell me this?”

“Um, well, um, everyone knew,” stuttered Superintendent Tom Oliver (Jonny Sweet).

Babylon is The Thick of It meets The Line of Duty with a nice dark sprinkling of Black Mirror. I loved the moment when Liz Garvey gave her first office team-talk and was handed a swivel chair by her assistant to stand on – in idiotic goodwill – that she would clearly break her neck on. Just that moment of sheer stupidity spoke volumes for the poisoned chalice Garvey had accepted via this new job. Channel 4 is making six more episodes of Babylon, which is good news. I found it rather arresting.

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