'Babylon' Review: The Dumb Lives of Trigger-Happy Cops

The policemen in Danny Boyle’s dark comedy ‘Babylon’ joke about prison riots, bomb threats, and the shooting of unarmed civilians, while spin doctors clean up their messes.

Dean Rogers/Sundance TV

Babylon, Danny Boyle’s dark comedy about London’s police force and the PR whiz tasked with shaping its public image beyond “trigger-happy meatheads,” comes to American audiences at a delicate time. Policemen on the show joke about prison riots, bomb threats, and the shooting of unarmed civilians. In the first episode, an officer is shown video of himself shooting and killing a man. He frets about how identifiable he is in the grainy footage. “Do you think I have a particular stance? I’m distinctive, aren’t I?” he groans. “Not really, mate,” quips a smirking colleague. “Just the hard-on before you shoot unarmed members of the public.”

A simpler show would have left it at that. But Babylon asks us to do a little more: It wants us to empathize. That officer fretting about his “stance,” we learn, is plagued by PTSD that cripples him both on the job and at home. In a later episode, when an investigation ends with the shooting death of a black teenager (yes, Babylon goes there), that same officer is the only cop who tells the truth about what really happened. We’re asked to see beyond the icky spin tactics of the force’s PR team—who successfully get even Al Jazeera to run friendlier angles—and commiserate with these poor wretches doing their best at an impossible job.

But Babylon doesn’t always succeed at making its characters relatable. In the first three episodes of the six-episode series (if you don’t count the two-hour pilot that aired on SundanceTV last year), it flat-out fails to give us reason to care about these people. It’s too preoccupied with witty wisecracks and sordid backstories to remember to make its characters compelling. Is it funny? Sure, it can be hilarious, especially when skewering cop mentality (“If they’ve got a glock, you pop, pop, pop!”) and petty interoffice politics. But for too long, we’re left without anyone to root for.

That said, things fall into place after Episode 3 with a sudden, traumatic event. The jokes stay incisive, and just like that, the caricatures populating New Scotland Yard become real people—ones you want to follow to the end. Writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain may occasionally bite off more than they can chew with the drama, but their comedy at least has been finely honed. They wrote for Peep Show and The Thick of It, which led to Veep—another satire with foul-mouthed humor similar to Babylon’s.

The show begins by introducing us to communications wunderkind Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), who’s been poached from Instagram and lured across the pond to London’s Metropolitan Police. She’s an idealist, always talking about “360-degree communication” (blah blah, TED Talk jargon, blah). Some of her ideas sound batshit insane, like her proposal to found a police-run news network to “shut out the press and go directly to the public!” A rival points out that the “Metwork” would be like Kim Jong-un getting his own channel to do stories on cute pets, but Garvey has a point: Real news networks don’t often cover the stuff police get right. Airing the force’s victories and mistakes—even on a phony-sounding network—just may rebuild public trust. (That, or she’s spin-doctored us into buying her idea.)

Garvey answers to Police Commissioner Richard Miller (the excellent James Nesbitt), a gruff Irishman hiding a slew of dark secrets. There’s his right-hand man, Charles Inglis (Paterson Joseph) who’s getting tired of second place, and greasy PR underling Finn (Bertie Carvel), who undermines Garvey at every opportunity. Out in the field, Nick Blood as Officer Warwick is the show’s most sympathetic man in blue—er, checkers—and Adam Deacon as clownish Robbie successfully unnerves as a rookie with a huge gun (you can imagine how that goes).

There are affairs, backstabbings and shocking twists, though the show is best in its farcical takes on office dwellers, when showcasing Garvey’s great ideas, or when we’re in the field on tense missions with the officers—not, say, when we’re at a bar shooting the shit with cops whose names we barely remember anyway.

But the show moves at a clipped pace so we never dwell for too long—and it’s certainly ballsy in facing uncomfortable police issues head-on with such biting wit. We already know there’s two sides to every story, but Babylon wants to teach a different lesson: Cops are just dumb humans like the rest of us.