Sundance’s Police Comedy ‘Babylon’ Is Darkly Humorous, If Poorly Timed

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It’s impossible to write about, or even just to watch, the comedic police procedural/workplace sitcom Babylon without subconsciously viewing it in the context of current events. It is eerily topical, even uncomfortably so. Babylon, which takes place in the UK, divides its focus between the Metropolitan Police Service’s officers and its public relations department, which struggles to better the squad’s less-than-impressive public image. “People don’t trust us,” says Director of Communications Liz Garvey (Brit Marling). “They think we’re a bunch of trigger-happy meatheads.” Well, if the uniform fits… Thankfully, Babylon is good enough to mostly overcome its unfortunate timing, even if it’s occasionally hard to watch.

Babylon originated on Britain’s Channel 4 last year, with a somewhat rough 90-minute pilot by the brilliant film director Danny Boyle. The show was picked up by Sundance for the US, and the network strategically skipped the pilot’s long introduction and jumped straight into the series’ six episodes (which is a bit confusing, but not so much that you can’t follow what’s going on; the first episode also works as an intro to the series, though it’s frustrating that Babylon never explains Liz’s existence, how she got the job, or the fact that she’s American). The cast is mostly superb, particularly James Nesbitt, who growls perfectly as Police Commissioner Richard and Daniel Kaluuya, who stands out as Matt, a young guy making a documentary about the police. (The one problem is Brit Marling, whose irritating performance in one of the show’s biggest roles is painful enough that it becomes distracting).

There are a few police clichés that actually work for the show, such as the rookie officer who is nowhere near mature enough for the job at hand, and the hesitant cop reeling from his involvement in a shooting. Babylon tackles riots, bombs, and police murders carefully: it doesn’t exactly want you to feel sympathetic towards its police officers, and it doesn’t go to great lengths to humanize any of them (in fact, it often takes shots at their ineptitude or awfulness). At the same time, the show does make it clear that the officers have a tough job, one where it’s often hard to do the exact right thing during the tense moment when officers have to make a split-second, potentially life-or-death decision. It helps that Babylon has a twisted sense of humor (and near-Thick of It levels of hilarious, expletive-filled one-liners). But the show remains dark throughout, with violence, casualties, and a deadly twist.

One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of Babylon is the also-impossible job that the Public Relations department has in trying to gain the public’s trust. Liz, who, according to her rival, is “the best thing that’s happened to London since the plague,” seems to be perpetually on the brink of a breakdown, especially as her personal life spirals alongside her work life. It’s both funny and gross to watch the PR department as they bicker over word use (at one point, after debating “riot” vs. “disturbance,” they eventually land on “severe disturbance”). In the first episode, when this riot and/or disturbance breaks out, there is a glorious juxtaposition between what’s actually happening — shots of police in full riot gear closing in on the boys at the Youth Offenders Institution — and the “peaceful” resolution that the news correspondents are reporting on.

When Babylon really picks up is also when it becomes a tough sell. Midway through the series, there’s a plot involving the shooting of a black teenager — which is, again, impossible to watch without thinking of the very real police killings of black men and boys in America that have dominated the news lately. It’s a tricky storyline to handle, even if it weren’t so unfortunately timed, and Babylon tries to balance the harrowing event with twisted humor, particularly within the PR department.

Without getting into too much detail, there’s a scene in which Liz and a coworker try to find any sort of way to spin the killing without smearing the teen’s name. One suggestion is to focus on the fact that one of the officers involved was black. “I’m not actually 100 percent sure he is black,” Liz says, prompting her coworker to say that the officer is mixed, and “mixed race is black, isn’t it?” It’s a funny exchange during a decidedly not-funny series of events, though the laughter it elicits is more uncomfortable than anything else — which is perhaps true of the entire series.