What’s more harrowing than police work? Try dealing with spin from the public-relations quagmire that regularly surrounds it. As premises go, it’s hard to be much timelier than “Babylon,” which washes onto U.S. shores by way of England. Devoted to the pitfalls of running Scotland Yard, the six-part series arrives on SundanceTV with director Danny Boyle among its exec producers, yielding a scabrous, profane and darkly funny satire, ostensibly told from the perspective of the American assigned to help put out fires amid the tinderbox of big-city policing — including, before its over, the controversial shooting of a black teenager.
Brit Marling plays PR maven Liz Garvey, the wide-eyed Yank whose TED talk caught the eye of Scotland Yard’s Chief Constable Richard Miller (James Nesbitt, sporting an even more forbidding scowl than he does on “The Missing”), the walking incarnation of thinly contained rage. Comparing the job to car maintenance, the top cop describes his task has having to “repair the engine while it’s still running at full throttle.”
Although Richard respects Liz, almost nobody else does, particularly her ostensible second-in-command (Bertie Carvel), who seeks to undermine her at every turn. The terrific cast also includes Paterson Joseph (“The Leftovers”) and Nicola Walker (“Last Tango in Halifax”) as deputy commissioners whose roles expand as the program progresses.
Over the course of the series writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Jon Brown also provide a grunt’s-eye-view, following a number of officers, including Nick Blood (currently seen on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”) as a cop involved in a shooting, and a rookie (Adam Deacon) who has miscalculated badly by allowing a TV producer (Daniel Kaluuya) to chronicle his every move in “Cops”-like fashion.
Blasting into premium cable territory with its creatively peppery language, “Babylon” didn’t choose the title lightly. It is, rather, symbolic of the chaos that reigns both within the department and in dealings with its various constituencies, from the public to city hall — and of the tendency of different groups of people to speak past each other.
As for the PR function, it’s a world where privatization butts heads with public service, and corporate flunkies debate whether they can get away with characterizing a prison riot as a “severe disturbance.”
The program also yields a number of surprises, while adopting a view that isn’t so much sympathetic to police as it is an acknowledgement of how impossible the job is — whether that’s busting down doors, or explaining why in the aftermath.
Like a lot of smaller channels and services, SundanceTV has shrewdly capitalized on the glut of fine British fare (Channel 4 partnered on this one), but the network couldn’t have anticipated how incredibly relevant its latest endeavor would feel in the wake of shootings or killings by police that have roiled the U.S., from Missouri to California, Ohio to New York.
Indeed, on a channel with a higher profile, “Babylon” would likely become a significant part of that debate. As it stands, the series will have to settle for being a gritty addition to SundanceTV’s growing portfolio of impressive dramas, and might be slightly more commercial than most of its predecessors. And for the smoke that’s blown by Liz and her peers, that, at least, isn’t just spin.