'Babylon': TV Review

Dean Rogers
SundanceTV's fantastic drama is being pitched as a comedy — which undermines its potential and impact

An embattled London police chief brings in an American PR expert to help improve the reputation of his force

It's hard to imagine the strategy session that took place prior to SundanceTV's picking up the British series Babylon.

The show, created by Academy Award winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting), is being loudly touted as "a dark new comedy series," when it's clearly dark but less clearly funny.

That's not meant to be an indictment of Babylon's humor, or lack thereof. It's just that the first three hours of the six-hour miniseries mark it as a drama first and foremost. And, in some ways, a dark drama. Not a dark comedy.

Fussing over the description of Babylon might not seem all that important except that the ambitious miniseries is tonally quite challenging, but not in the way that, say, Denis Leary's FX dramedy Rescue Me was. In Rescue Me, the comedic elements were elaborately constructed; whether primarily verbal or outright visual, you knew, in those moments, that Leary's twisted sense of humor was in play. The series then jerked violently toward the dramatic, and that, too, was clear. Rescue Me didn't always get that tonal trickery right — it was a nearly impossible feat.

Showtime's Shameless, on the other hand, is mostly a drama with funny moments woven into it (and should never, ever, be in the comedy category at any awards show).

Babylon works much better as a series if you imagine it as a drama first and foremost. Having SundanceTV bill it as a comedy could easily mess with your head — clearly, it had that effect on me. I kept waiting for the humor, and during those waiting periods kept thinking Babylon was a pretty damned good drama. Those feelings increased exponentially as the hours went on until it became clear the inclusion of the "comedy" label was unnecessarily detracting from what otherwise was an ambitious workplace drama.

The other thing about Babylon that, as you become immersed in it, becomes clear is that the tone is, while not a total novelty, certainly fresh and rigorously untraditional. The series stars James Nesbitt (The Hobbit, The Missing) as Richard Miller, chief constable of the London police department, who spends his life putting out administrative and political fires as well as trying to keep a lid on London's crime scene. He hires an American PR executive named Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) in a big-picture move to hone the message and control the force's image, which is being battered by the aggressive British media.

Now, sure, that premise has comedic elements, even dark ones, that could be exploited by co-creators and writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, best known for their work on the comedy series Peep Show. (Jon Brown also writes for the series. What Boyle does, on the other hand, is less clear since he doesn't direct or write any of the episodes.)

Comedy writers can produce great dramas (look at Jack Amiel and Michael Begler shifting over to create and write The Knick), so it shouldn't be a surprise that Bain and Armstrong and Brown have turned Babylon into a pretty gritty and compelling drama. What's more surprising — unless things get significantly funnier in the final three hours — is that Babylon is being slapped with this "satirical" tag. I didn't see it — Babylon seemed to be tackling serious issues of hazing, internal politics, PTSD and infidelity in a strangely riveting brew. And yet, SundanceTV says this about it: "This fish out of water story hilariously shows the clash of cultures and age, the embrace of transparency and technology as well as the real underbelly of the relationship between media and government."

To which I would say, yes to all except the "hilariously" part, because that's not doing Babylon any justice.

This is a series worth tracking down and watching. If you laugh, that's a bonus.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine