Review, Babylon, C4

Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have carved out a pretty nifty niche for themselves as C4's top-notch comedy writers with Peep Show and Fresh Meat. In case you've been living under a stone without access to the internet for the last week their latest project for the channel is a bit of a departure. Babylon, directed by Danny Boyle, is a one-off feature-length comedy-drama following a day in the life of a cross-section of London cops.

It is not, under closer scrutiny, however, such a massive departure. Although it has come out of the Drama department there is plenty of comedy in it and also plenty of lovely, familiar comedy faces. Paterson "Johnson from Peep Show" Joseph plays Commissioner James Nesbitt's stoney-faced but shifty deputy, while Jonny Sweet plays another officer with his typical idiot charm.

The plot ambitiously combines various storylines. It's the first day in the job for non-nonsense, jargon-spouting, new-broom communications boss Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) and it looks as if it is going to be a day to remember as there appears to be a serial sniper on a spree. Meanwhile a documentary camera is filming the bobbies on the beat, a mixture of the pigshit-thick, the shit-scared and the truncheon-happy. Sometimes all three at the same time, particularly in the case of TSG Officer Robbie, played brilliantly by Adam Deacon. 

Babylon certainly starts off in some comic style. There's a crash between a cop car and an ambulance and a suspect gets tasered in the genitals during a dawn raid. All of which is portrayed as typical for the profession. The tone is redolent of Four Lions in the way it humanises a serious subject and reveals the mundane absurdity behind the headlines – terrorism in Four Lions, which Armstrong and Baim both worked on, police procedurals here.

There are also plenty of contemporary techno-references. Officers have to give instructions via dodgy Skype connections and at one point it appears that the killer has a Twitter account and is sending out a mixture of LMAOs and messages to Russell Brand. At times this feels like it could easily have been an episode of Black Mirror if it had just decided to slip a little further away from reality and a little further towards satirical/dystopian absurdity – Jesse Armstrong has already written a Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You, which Robert Downey Jnr has reportedly bought the film rights to.

Meanwhile, back in head office there is a lot of scurrying down corridors and sinister phone calls in toilets. The backchat isn't quite as catty or expletive-laden as The Thick of It or as quickfire as Veep (which Armstrong has written for) but the script is very good at exposing the chicanery of law-enforcement politics and the cast is consistently strong. James Nesbitt is particularly good as Chief Constable Richard Miller, playing a pretty straight bat, but with just a hint of humour.

I'm not sure whether Danny Boyle or Bain and Armstrong initiated the project, but despite the drama tag this feels closer to the duo's past work than Boyle's oeuvre. I don't remember Boyle casting bug-eyed comedy loon Marek Larwood to do his trademark Boris Johnson impression in 28 Days Later or the Olympics opening as he does here. BS isn't named, but the Mayor in Babylon has custard-coloured hair and a posh voice and Larwood has done BS before so surely...

There are a few plot-lines that aren't as neatly tied up as they could have been and Spooks' Nicola Walker has a strangely underwitten small role in the control room, but these are tiny quibbles. Sunday night TV is usually a pretty tedious affair, but not this time. A series of six one-hour episodes starts filming in March – can't wait.

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