‘Babylon’ 1.01 Recap: “You Can’t Stop Bad News”

I don’t believe I’ve ever watched original programming, or much of anything really, on Sundance (formerly the Sundance Channel) before. Considering the way the network has treated the premiere of Danny Boyle’s new black comedy/drama ‘Babylon’, I can see why that is and will certainly not make much attempt to tune in again.

First off, Sundance doesn’t even broadcast in HD, at least not on Comcast. Here we are in 2015, and I’m expected to watch a brand new TV series from an Oscar winning filmmaker in smudge-vision standard-def? I don’t think so. Fortunately, Comcast offers episodes in HD via On-Demand, but there’s no Sundance high-def channel to program a series recording to.

Even more importantly, Sundance has decided not to air the show’s 90-minute pilot episode, which was first broadcast as a TV movie in the UK about a year ago. I’m not sure whether Sundance also ran it around that time or not, but regardless, it’s not being re-run now. The official premiere of the series starts with the second episode, after all the characters and storylines have already been introduced. A lengthy recap at the beginning tries to fill in some of the gaps, but it’s still confusing as hell to jump in so late.

Here’s what I was able to gather: Beleaguered by controversy and scandal, Scotland Yard hires American public relations wiz Liz Garvey (indie darling Brit Marling) to come to London and fix the Metropolitan Police Service’s image problems. Allowed unprecedented access to the department’s inner workings, Liz is made top advisor to hardass Commissioner Miller (James Nesbitt), much to his disgust. At any sign of crisis that will require police action, she can direct him in how to handle it – not to achieve the best outcome for the city or the public, but for the best PR spin that will play well on the news and social media.

Given things happening in the real world right now, this is a very timely – and deeply cynical – premise for a TV series. I sure wish I could have seen how it was introduced dramatically. As it is, I just have to accept that it has already happened and try to play catch-up as best I can.

The plot of the second episode mainly concerns a riot at a youth prison, during which the understaffed guards are overrun and forced to take shelter in a small secured room. The private firm that runs the prison initially resists police assistance and tries to downplay the incident as a “disturbance” rather than a riot. When events escalate and the cops need to move in with riot gear, Garvey tries to manage the press to ensure that news coverage sticks to the official story that the highly competent police force has the situation well in hand. This leads to some very amusing juxtapositions of what’s being said on TV against the chaos really happening inside the prison.

A separate storyline concerns a cop named Warwick (Nick Blood, currently also featured in the second season of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’) who gets a serious case of the “yips” after Liz releases video footage of a shooting incident he was involved in. Even though he was in the right (hence why Liz thought it was a convenient idea to sell the public an illusion of transparency), Warwick receives death threats, which cause him to become increasingly paranoid and ineffectual as the day goes on.

‘Babylon’ is being marketed as a comedy. Indeed, the show is filled with a lot of very dark humor and funny (often caustic) banter between the characters. A running gag centers on a cop who’s been hazed into eating 100 chicken nuggets on his last day. However, the series is just as much a heavy drama and has wide swings in tone. A recurring theme of this episode is that Liz needs to realize that her actions and schemes have real consequences for other people.

As mentioned earlier, Danny Boyle is a producer on the show. Although he only directed the (unseen) pilot, the second episode is made in his signature frenetic style with jittery editing. Most of the British actors have rather thick accents and talk really quickly. Combined with a significant emphasis on local politics, this may make the show a little difficult for American viewers to approach. Honestly, I think I found it more interesting in concept than in execution. Whether I’d be more open to it if I saw the pilot episode first, I can’t say.

Right now, I’m not sure if I’ll go out of my way to follow subsequent episodes On-Demand. I sure won’t be recording them off the standard-def feed, that’s for sure.

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