With the Thursday premiere of Danny Boyle's astringent though essentially true-hearted police satire "Babylon," SundanceTV expands its original-series repertoire into comedy. The move proves that the cable network is not afraid to serve British television straight up, without the traditional transatlantic softening agents.
Co-produced with the United Kingdom's Channel 4, the series is, in one sense, a study in international, and generational, relations. There's an American character at the heart of "Babylon": Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), the young and lovely PR genius attempting to decode the intricacies of her new employer, Scotland Yard. American viewers may find themselves in the same position.
Although the crisscrossing plots echo "Hill Street Blues," the black humor, clipped pace and dearth of sentiment is all Brit. Google searches may be required for a few linguistic idiosyncrasies (we're way beyond bangers and mash territory), as well as the various layers of British law enforcement.
Fortunately, the essential absurdities of the high-pressure workplace and bureaucratic lunacy keep the narrative universal, with writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong wielding both rapier wit and sheer goofiness.
In Boyle's two-hour pilot, which originally aired on SundanceTV last year, Garvey became the head of communications at Scotland Yard, an American whiz kid brought in to help the prickly but decent Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) rebrand the troubled London Police Force.
Not everyone is happy to have her there, of course, especially Communications Deputy Finn Kirkwood (Bertie Carvel, taking scheming and insufferable to new and giddy depths.) The six-part series opens with a riot at a juvenile detention center overseen by a privatized company, a PR nightmare for the pro-privatization mayor's office and a potential win for Miller and his beleaguered police force.
But Miller's fiercest demons are within, including his own personal failings and the ambitions of his assistant commissioner, Charles Inglis (Paterson Joseph), who has grown restless in his second chair.
Mercifully, the action is not limited to the central office. Concurrent narratives from all corners of the playing field keep "Babylon" from becoming a war of words.
Armed Response Officer Warwick (Nick Blood, also costarring in "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.") remains shaky after a shooting incident; Territorial Support Group Officer Davina (Jill Halfpenny), married to Banjo (Andrew Brooke), one of Warwick's colleagues, is having an affair with one of her own. Assistant Commissioner Sharon Franklin ("Last Tango in Halifax's" Nicola Walker) struggles to inject calm and common sense into the proceedings while independent documentarian Matt Coward (Daniel Kaluuya) hopes footage of aspiring Authorized Firearms Officer Robbie (Adam Deacon) will provide his big break.
Fast-paced to the point of hectic, "Babylon" is an ambitious attempt to blend satire with character drama, though it clearly sides with satire, relying on action over character development and preferring to observe in situ rather than explore back story or personal motivation.
Its topics are, however, ripe for satirizing. Admirably, every story comes with at least two sides, every character a mash-up of integrity and self-interest.
Nesbitt and Walker, always a pleasure to watch, offer two studies of deceptive stillness. Although the camera loves her face a bit too much, Marling mostly holds her own as the lone Yank in a stellar British cast. For a main character, though, Liz remains something of a cipher throughout the series.
But what it lacks in depth, "Babylon" makes up for in range and sudden brilliant commentary. Crisis is continual and although the subplots do come together in the end, "Babylon" does not attempt to offer a solution to the problems it points out.
Instead, Boyle, Bain and Armstrong seem content with presenting both the pettiness and courage of an "impossible" job while reminding us that no matter what the headline or imagery may be, it all comes down to the unpredictable nature of people — at least some of whom are trying to do the right thing.