I don’t answer that sort of question.

Near the end of the excellent BBC miniseries The State Within, after several hours of political machinations that occasionally hit too close to the mark, the British Ambassador to America and the US Secretary of Defense get down to business and discuss the possible outcomes of a potential war. Until that moment, each of those characters has demonstrated a moral compass (even if it’s a bit skewed from true north). But in a bland office in a nondescript building, the prospect of war becomes a game, and every other concern vanishes as it all comes down to how it’s played.

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From the first minutes of Babylon—in which London Police Commissioner Miller botches a Q&A prep about police tactics, and Communications Director Liz isn’t quite as concerned about that as she is about her buzzing fridge—the show hints that we’re in for similar ruthlessness. This is a world in which a cop shoots an unarmed young man and the primary concern in HQ is that the video footage plays in their favor and the cop gets comfortable with the tape. (“We’ll pixelate, obviously,” Liz assures him.) And amid several plot threads that all unravel slightly faster than anyone can keep up with them, the episode’s set piece is a prison riot at a privatized juvenile facility, in which the corporation and the cops are each more intent on discrediting the other than in handling the riot. The riot’s underlying issues are never so much as hinted at, of course; they’re not part of the game.

It’s a tonally delicate situation. The plot points themselves are recognizable cop-show standards, but some of Babylon’s best moments are the brittle, sometimes absurd humor it manages to draw alongside its clear-eyed look at the sheer callousness of red tape. While certainly a more restrained affair than The Thick of It (on which worked Babylon writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain), the episode hits its best and tightest marks on the comedy side, like the journalists who ask for ‘color’ info during a hostage situation and land intently on pizza toppings. Cops and privatized-police liaisons arguing over the loss in revenue between a riot and a “severe disturbance” might be the best, by a hair. (The best line of the episode goes to David Kaluuya’s documentarian, to a cop who’s angry he didn’t get involved in a fight with a prisoner to improve the odds to two-on-one: “I’m not a cop, though. It was one against one and one other one.”)

But it’s also a series that cuts to the chase when it matters: When Liz introduces herself to Warwick, he interrupts her as she broaches the subject of “the discharging of - “ “When I shot that bloke.” In fact, despite its busy-ness and its soft-pilot positioning, there’s a sense that its job is to introduce everyone: to the characters, to the sometimes-distinctly-British issues at take, and the tonal whiplash, just to make sure you understand the sort of show we’re in for. It’s out to prove it doesn’t care about how it comes off, and has been since the beginning: it’s been pitched and promoted as a satire, as a black comedy, and as a cop drama with an edge of the absurd, and all those things are already present, often in the same scene.

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With so much on the line, casting is crucial, and it’s here the series feels like it’s not quite on solid footing yet. It has great potential; James Nesbitt is a quietly worrisome Commissioner, deadpan because he’s hollow (though he’s asked to make maybe one too many affectless pronouncements), and the rest of the seasoned ensemble largely falls into place. But the only character who feels as though she’s already lived-in is Assistant Commissioner Franklin, played by the always-fantastic Nicola Walker as a longtime veteran of the game, sharp enough to cut yourself on and fed up enough to be a wild card. Sadly, the show’s weakest link so far is its central one: Brit Marling, who tends to be a subdued presence, currently so subdued that she seems like an American somnolent brought in for reasons unknown to murmur at the top brass and occasionally frown. She receives no assistance from character beats that seem oddly cookie-cutter: she’s all business and awkward socially! She’s devastated when strangers vaguely dislike her! Luckily, there are hints of depth—she positively comes to life when Finn goads her into viciousness, which bodes well for a show that’s so interested in demonstrating the pound of flesh that goes into the public face of things.

But despite the show being a British import, it’s also impossible to look at Babylon without marking parallels. Some satirical shows are just timely enough to provide insight alongside their entertainment. The Thick of It nailed that particular high-powered, high-dudgeon idiocy lurking underneath politics. Babylon is so sharp and so timely that it’s almost impossible to separate the show from current headlines. As a country, we’ve been pointedly reminded of late just how hard the law enforcement machine will work to justify the actions of its officers, no matter how indefensible. We’ve been pointedly reminded that the police are increasingly buying into alternate systems of law enforcement (be they privatized or militarized). We’ve been pointedly reminded that footage is often the only thing that can force police to admit a crime has even been committed—and even then, the justice system’s primary concern seems to be exonerating the cops involved. It makes even the darkest angles of Babylon a little too close to home: it’s a show in which the furthest stretch of believability is that Officer Warwick demonstrates remorse for shooting an unarmed person.

Given this particular, unhappy timeliness, it seems like a big ask to watch a show in which the only concerns are from the perspective of those in the gears of the law enforcement machine. Babylon’s potential for greatness is in making those machinations both interesting in their own right, and a quiet condemnation of the status quo. It’s a show about a particularly vicious form of game-play, positioned to be particularly vicious; if it doesn’t answer that kind of question, maybe that’s just as well.

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Stray observations:

  • The minimal use of music is noteworthy and smart; the show’s less interested in tidily guiding our emotional reactions than making us examine them, and the music exists largely to bridge the otherwise-disparate arenas of operation.
  • Executive producer Danny Boyle directed the series pilot (which Sundance has opted not to show). However, his influence hovers stylistically across this episode, with quick cuts, lingering closeups, and occasionally-too-frenetic camerawork that visually equalizes the chaos of a prison riot and a press conference. And while there’s a deliberately low-key style in this episode, director John S. Baird pays special attention to the lighting at police headquarters, flooding every frame with light until it begins to bleed into everyone’s silhouettes, a palpable force being exerted on everyone inside it. It’s a fishbowl, and Baird makes you feel it.
  • There’s always something satisfying in a name that’s so on-the-nose it’s practically Dickens: Cravenwood private prison gets close.
  • One of the most chilling lines, to me, was a throwaway during Warwick’s encounter with the wounded horse while his partners are chatting about its therapeutic quality: “A horse is a thing, mate. That’s the problem. Shooting things.” The Thanks cake takes that scene even darker and suggests we’re in for some quietly twisted beat cops, but there are hints of emotional weight around all this coming later in the season, and I’d be very interested to see them come back to this line somehow.
  • Nicola Walker is such a favorite of mine that watching her deliver cutting commentary always feels like a present mailed straight to me. I’m happy to see her in anything, and can’t wait to see what she does with this.

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