Light and breezy, “Hotel Babylon” is a fairly simple conceit, built around the employees at a high-class London hotel and the guests they serve — “no matter how absurd, bizarre or perverse their requirements might be,” as one staffer helpfully sum ups the job. More conventional than the best BBC dramas, the series gets by on an attractive cast and its high style, serving up a trifle that’s not compulsive enough initially to demand an extended stay.
Perhaps foremost, this series based on Imogene Edwards-Jones’ novel highlights how even a middling drama carefully shaped by a writer tends to be more compelling than reality shows crafted by editors, inasmuch as the template is virtually the same as Bravo’s unscripted version of this premise, “Welcome to the Parker.”
Here, much of the action is seen through the eyes of Charlie (“Bodies'” Max Beesley), who’s seeking to earn a promotion to deputy manager from Rebecca (Tamzin Outhwaite), his tense, personally troubled g.m. In the premiere, Charlie seeks to secure the job by enticing a famous rock band to stay at the hotel, discovering much to his chagrin that far from their profligate, wall-smashing ways, the group is in rehab and merely wants a quiet, expense-free evening.
The other players include the beautiful head of housekeeping (Natalie Mendoza), with whom Charlie conducts a rather blissful bed-check; concierge Tony (Dexter Fletcher); and chirpy receptionist Anna (Emma Pierson), a woman from Charlie’s past.
In classic U.S. style, the episodes are largely driven by those who come into the hotel, including an amusing bit in the second episode regarding an effort to expel prostitutes from the premises, yielding some embarrassment once it’s realized that the staff can’t always distinguish the whores from the hotel’s clientele.
Set to bluesy music that recalls the swingin’ ’60s and emphasizes the setting’s gilded trappings, the show seldom delves much beneath that polished surface, but glides across it with considerable panache. That’s in no small part due to Beesley’s understated performance and narration, gently guiding the audience behind these velvet ropes, while the producers slowly develop the staff’s backstories without heavily serializing the drama.
Unlike most short-order U.K. imports, BBC America has scheduled 16 episodes to run through November, dotted by an assortment of guests that includes Joan Collins. As series go, it’s perhaps easiest to think of “Hotel Babylon” as the opposite of how the Eagles described the Hotel California: A place where you can check in any time you like, and if you don’t like that week’s accommodations, hey, you can always leave.