Babylon, TV review: Danny Boyle tackles topic of the moment - where policing meets PR

Delightfully un-PC satire makes James Nesbitt a force to reckon with

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The Independent Culture

Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain are the seemingly infallible writing partnership behind Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Four Lions, so a brand new series is always exciting. This goes double for last night’s feature-length pilot for Babylon (Channel 4, Sun), which was directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, and tackles a topic of the moment: where policing meets PR.

It’s Liz Garvey’s first day in the office. The glamorous American import (played by glamorous American import Brit Marling) has been poached from Instagram to take up a post as the Met’s new head of communications. Unluckily, her first day coincides with a crisis that tests the whole force. Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) is trying to make decisions under pressure, aided (or not) by his deputy (Paterson Joseph aka Alan from Peep Show) and flunky (Jonny Sweet).

Meanwhile, Specialist Firearms Command (including, delightfully, Phone Shop’s Andrew Brooke) are developing itchy trigger fingers, and the frontline coppers (Adam Deacon, on energetic form) are trying – and failing – to present a professional front to a documentary cameraman. The only notable omission from this Met cross-section are the plain-clothes detectives, but then it’s not as if we don’t see enough of them elsewhere on the box.

Post the Mark Duggan verdict, post-Plebgate, and with a new Hillsborough inquest due to start in March, spin is more important than ever to a modern police force – and more powerful than 10 of Boris’s water cannons. Babylon’s best scene was its opening one, in which several tooled-up, testosterone-addled members of the show’s deftly cast ensemble were caught on camera phone bursting into a man’s home and tasering his testicles. Does Garvey’s background in social media and faith in “transparency” adequately equip her to deal with such a shambles?

Unfortunately, the answer seemed to be yes. Unfortunate, because spotless professionalism doesn’t sit well in a British workplace dramedy, and because Armstrong and Bain’s best characters have always been incompetents – the cowardly Mark and the vain JP. Call it misguided patriotism, but I couldn’t help siding with Garvey’s usurper Finn (Bertie Carvel), who instinctively finds her drive and clear-eyed optimism distasteful. If we wanted idealistic speeches about civic responsibility, we’d watch The West Wing, wouldn’t we? And as for amoral mastery of the dark arts, well, there’s only one Malcolm Tucker.

Watch the trailer for Channel 4's Babylon

Warning: Contains explicit language