Written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (the partners behind the satirical masterpieces Peep Show and Four Lions) it would be hard to imagine Babylon as a failing new drama. The same goes for the eclectic mix of actors: James Nesbitt, a budding Brit Marling, and Adam Deacon, well known for his part in Kidulthood. Much excitement has also been shown regarding director Danny Boyle’s collaboration.
Yet despite this fusion of influences, the opening episode fails to impress. One might argue that it is precisely because of this that the drama goes awry. The oscillation between drama and satirical comedy, although usually a winning combination, is highly unconvincing in Babylon. The comical aspect shifts from subtle humour, between Constable Richard Miller and Liz Garvey, to overly-dramatised “comic” scenes with Officer Robbie.
These scenes in themselves highlight the painful discrepancies in the police force, with their racist and violent tendencies, documented by the cameraman Matt Coward (Daniel Kaluuya), who follows the cops on their outings. This sense of voyeurism reminds the viewer of similar nauseating cop programmes, and blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. The drama also alludes to the lack of transparency within the police force and the news channels, and the frictions between both these parties and the general public.
But this critique of the police is so glaringly obvious and lacking in subtlety that one would struggle to take it at face value, and one cannot find it amusing. In this way, the drama fails to be either politically engaged or funny.
It is, however, particularly delightful to see the return of Paterson Joseph taking on the role of Commissioner Charles Inglis, a pushy, snide and successful man very much like his character of Johnson in Peep Show. It’s a pity that the rest of the production does not centre round a similar sense of humour. His explicit innuendos and quick-witted repartees are both punchy and ridiculous; quite the contrary of Liz Garvey’s socially driven rhetoric and man-bashing comments.
It is precisely this conflict of comical styles, and the decidedly excessive insertion of socio-political critique that makes this drama unsatisfying on comic and dramatic levels alike.