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The Unfulfilled Promise of Danny Boyle’s ‘Babylon’

At all moments, ‘Babylon’ makes you feel like you should be paying attention, but that becomes exhausting even over six short episodes. When the fight-or-flight adrenaline rush goes on forever, the heart gives out.

Amid a general fervor surrounding famed directors working in TV — David Fincher’s role in House of Cards, Steven Soderbergh’s work on The Knick, and soon Woody Allen on Amazon — it seems like a miniseries helmed by a bona fide Oscar-winning director should garner some attention. Instead, Danny Boyle’s Babylon, which finishes its U.S. run on SundanceTV tonight, has mostly come and gone without comment.

At first glance, the series has all the ingredients of a hit, or at least a short-lived critical darling. Its cast includes Brit Marling, Paterson Joseph, and Daniel Kaluuya (who, incidentally, delivers the best performance in the best episode of Black Mirror). It is skillfully directed, stylistically overseen by Boyle, though not handled by him directly (duties were shared by Jon Baird and Sally El Hosaini), and looks colorful and exciting. And it has a great, timely hook in American spin artist Liz (Marling) trying to use her PR wizardry to reform the London Metropolitan Police Department. But I barely remember most of what happened on the show.

The first four episodes build to a fever pitch. But that same haste with which Babylon rushes toward its climax means that even after several hours, it’s hard to recall the names of some of the characters beyond “guy who shot someone” (Warwick) or “secret cop couple” (Davina and Clarkey) — characters whose story lines I actively enjoy but are content to mostly hang around the fringes of the show. If this weren’t a six-episode miniseries (the pilot episode aired separate to the regular run of shows), that wouldn’t be a problem. How many episodes did it take to learn everyone’s names on Rectify? The Wire? Babylon, a self-contained story, doesn’t have the benefit of open-endedness. Elements still appear and get thrown away for no particular reason.

The miniseries structure is part of what holds Babylon back from accomplishing everything it sets out to do. The concept of a police department attempting to reform, as well as modernize its operations and increase transparency, is extremely potent, particularly given the events of the months between production and air. But it makes pulling off the “comic” half of the series a bit tougher. Occasionally Babylon captures this tonal balance. When someone claims the spin business “is not an art house movie where everyone gets a point of view — it’s a Western. Black hats versus white hats,” it nails the cynical, horrifying rush of taking ownership of a story. Other times, the darkly comic aspects of Babylon often jar with its more serious elements — when cops shoot a black kid, they try to smear him as a gangster. These situations were tossed out and, just as quickly, disposed of.

Partially, that’s because the show seemed incapable of maintaining focus on anything. [SPOILER ALERT] I came close to being fully onboard with the series  — somewhere around the middle of Episode 3 — and then the most compelling character, James Nesbitt’s beleaguered commissioner, died. Nesbitt’s chemistry with Marling was such that when characters repeatedly suggest the two had slept together, it was hard to remember that they actually hadn’t. With him gone, the back half of the season was largely a struggle between Joseph’s presumptive new commissioner, Charles Inglis, and Liz’s candidate, Sharon Franklin (Nicola Walker) — as compelling as all of the actors involved are, it wound up being largely uninteresting.

Instead, Babylon’s real strength was in its grasp of rhythm and the way the creative team can have a sense of propulsion — even if nothing is actually happening, it sure seems like something important is going down. People walk places quickly and say things sternly, and, of course, there are those omnipresent drums serving like a racing heartbeat for characters who can’t slow down. At all moments, Babylon makes you feel like you should be paying attention, but that becomes exhausting even over six short episodes. When the fight-or-flight adrenaline rush goes on forever, the heart gives out.

The most charitable reading of this aspect is that Babylon is, in part, about the very nature of modern crisis, or “crisis.” Take the Internet — how many flare-ups produce outraged tweets and think pieces only to be forgotten about within a few days? Babylon operates on the same rules, throwing massive hostage situations, snipers, bombing threats, and, in the final episode, a police strike at its characters. (In six hours!) When everything is happening all at once, it’s impossible for anything to take hold long enough to establish any real meaning. There’s a chaotic inciting event, followed closely by the adrenaline rush of fixing a potential communications disaster (or getting off great tweets). And when all that comes down, there’s just another press conference.

Some TV manages to lean into this well, whether they’re part of a new generation of unabashed soaps like Scandal and Empire, or unbelievably slow and painstaking in their willingness to dig in to the implications of singular events (Babylon’s SundanceTV companion Rectify). Like those shows, Babylon lives in the moment — epitomized in the finale by Inglis’s thrilling speech about duty, honor, and the full weight of what he sees as the obligations of law and order. He prevents a strike, sidestepping a serious, entrenched institutional problem with words. By the end of its run, Babylon proves unable to figure out its relationship to those problems, or what comes after the shitstorm dies down. (Can anything?) In tonight’s finale, Ella Smith’s Mia, the heir apparent of the communications department, says, “When this hits the streets, they are going to explode.” What else is new?

Eric Thurm (@EricThurm) is a writer living in New York who has written for Complex, the A.V. Club, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.