Damien Love shares his top picks for TV in the week ahead.
Sunday, February 9
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9pm, Channel 4
It would be pushing things to suggest we stand in danger of having as many spoof cop shows as we do regular, run-of-the-mill cop shows - we could never have as many anythings as we do run-of-the-mill cop shows - but something is afoot.
Recently garlanded with Golden Globes, the American import Brooklyn Nine-Nine is gaining a devoted audience on E4, while, closer to home, BBC Scotland's faux cop-doc, Scot Squad, has just started filming a full series following last year's pilot. The third outing for Charlie Brooker's A Touch Of Cloth is already in the can, and Paul Abbott is returning to Channel 4 later this year with No Offence, a black comedy focusing on female police officers working out of a decrepit Manchester station.
Bulking the thick blue line out further this week comes Babylon, a feature-length pilot directed by Danny Boyle, serving as entrée for a full series set to begin filming in spring. We'll have to wait to see what Abbott comes up with, but of all the programmes in this wave so far available, Babylon is easily the most interesting and ambitious.
The styles blend and merge, but police comedies boil down to three basic types. There's the traditional sitcom, where the cophouse setting fades to the background as focus falls on characters (the best remains the great 1960s series, Car 54, Where Are You?). There's the outright parody, which is more about poking the generic clichés of crime drama than anything (the noble tradition that runs from Police Squad! to Touch Of Cloth). And there's the rarer satirical beast, which tries to say something about the nature of policing itself.
Written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Babylon has shades of all three, but lands firmly in the latter mode. Bain and Armstrong are perhaps still most associated with Peep Show, but it's their work on Chris Morris's audacious Four Lions movie and, particularly, as contributors to The Thick Of It that is key here. In the pilot, the London Met, under Commissioner Richard Miller (played by James Nesbitt and his impressive new hair), is anxious to remould and revitalise its image, and so hires, at great expense, a young American public relations guru, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), whose previous experience amounts to a stint as Instagram's PR chief. "Transparency is my flag," she declares, heralding new openness and twittery interaction. "We're dumping the journalists and asking the public for a date." On her first day, however, she's distracted from liaising with the documentary crews she's assigning to film with police on the beat, when a wave of shootings breaks out in London, and things get complicated and real, fast.
None of the characters are quite caricatures (although one volatile, gun-obsessed young officer veers very close) and one of Babylon's most intriguing aspects is a curious uncertainty of tone, a flaw that becomes a strength, as it veers close to straight, sympathetic drama and then away again.
It's not yet fully successful. It doesn't have The Thick Of It's frenetic pace, and some sequences drag, lines just lying there as distinctly sub-Malcolm Tucker. But it has a dicey, buzzy energy and striking currency. With the police under scrutiny for Plebgate the Mark Duggan shooting and so much more, Babylon deals in issues that are live and pressing. Indeed, its topicality might explain why Channel 4 is rushing this pilot out so far in advance of the actual series.
Monday, February 10
Danny Baker's Rockin' Decades/ The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern
9pm/10pm, BBC Four
If you enjoyed Danny Baker's Great Album Showdown last year, you'll enjoy this new series too, as it's basically the same thing. Showing across three nights, Baker and a changing panel in awkward armchairs argue over the best and worst of British rock across "three great decades": the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (because everybody knows nothing happened in the 1960s). Chewing through the 1970s tonight are ex-Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, the great Viv Albertine of The Slits and fellow punk icon Loyd Grossman. Baker is back at 10.30pm with a complementary archive performance show, tonight boasting The Who, Kate Bush and The Specials. Sadly, in between comes The Life Of Rock, a mock-music documentary, fronted by The Fast Show's Simon Day, in the guise of Pern, an earnest rock elder modelled after Peter Gabriel (who also appears in the series). It has its moments, but for the most part it's painfully unfunny - perhaps not surprising if you're going to count on rib-tickling contributors like Dan Cruickshank and Mike Read.
Tuesday, February 11
Parks And Recreation
10.30pm, BBC Four
Hardened Parks And Recreation fanatics will probably already have the DVD box set of Season Five on import, but in the world of council telly, it's Season Three beginning with a double bill tonight. To the horror of perky local bureaucrat Leslie (Amy Poehler), last series ended with the Pawnee government on shutdown, due to a crippling budget deficit. As we begin, she's struggling to get her department going again after three months laid off, but with the financial situation still perilous, there's no money to be had. As a last gamble, she decides to bring back the long-lost tradition of the Pawnee Harvest Festival; either it's a success, or Parks And Recreation must close for good...
Wednesday, February 12
9pm, Sky Atlantic
Starring Dominic Cooper as the author, this stiff, soapy drama is the latest in a long line of biographical pieces to view Ian Fleming through the unavoidable prism of his famous creation, James Bond. It's a fair enough starting point: down to his handmade Morland cigarettes and taste for sadism, many of Commander Bond's details and preferences were Commander Fleming's own, and his life before writing Casino Royale (Eton; Sandhurst; a job as Reuters's Moscow stringer in the 1930s; a war in Naval Intelligence, dreaming up bizarre missions; a stint as Cold War foreign correspondent, jet-setting along the Iron Curtain) seems in retrospect merely research for creating a pulp superspy. As with all previous attempts, however, this new series only proves Fleming had the right idea in going full out for mad fiction with knives in its shoes. Sketching in his early relationship with wife Ann O'Neill (Lara Pulver), tonight's episode is a little forced and flat, and the post- (sub-)Mad Men period styling does little to distract from the ham.
Thursday, February 13
The Brits Who Built The Modern World
9pm, BBC Four
The jingoistic title hides a decent series on recent architectural history, profiling the high-tech, post-modern modernist generation led by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins, Terry Farrell and Nicholas "Not Nick" Grimshaw. Built around interviews with all five, the series explores how childhoods of wartime austerity fed dreams of building a better world, and explores the creation of some iconic buildings, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Lloyd's of London, The Gherkin, Beijing Airport and MI6's headquarters. "I had no idea I was building MI6," Farrell says. "I was told it was a government headquarters and guessed it was for the Department of the Environment. That's why I put trees on the top…" Tonight's opener focuses on the 1980s, when Prince Charles led a rearguard action against contemporary architecture, while city money was demanding towering phallic symbols of steel.
Friday, February 14
10pm, Sky Atlantic
Edie Falco returns to duty as the most messed-up former addict staffer at New York's All Saints Hospital for the fifth series of one of the most underrated HBO series of the past five years. With creator Liz Brixius having departed at the end of the last season, however, it's a slightly shaky start. The strand of tonight's plot introducing new doctors to her ward - including a female resident calculating on sex appeal to make up for professional shortcomings - doesn't seem as gritty or surprising as this show once did, and some of the loose ends left dangling last time aren't so much tied up as swept under the carpet. However, Falco is as dependable as ever, and it settles around her into a very watchable groove, as she struggles with temptation, work, and the hostility coming from her ex-husband and eldest daughter.
Saturday, February 15
9pm, BBC Four
The Flemish import might not have audiences falling instantly in love quite the way The Killing and The Bridge did, but it moves at an easygoing pulpy clip, and it boasts one brilliant thing neither of those shows could think to offer: a maverick cop hero whose old boss has become a monk. A cop turned monk, man! Pursued by a host of malevolent forces unknown as he tries to crack the conspiracy, Inspector Geradi has fled to the sedate monastery where his former chief, Cassimon, has retreated for a life of quiet, grizzled contemplation and gardening. Geradi begs help and sanctuary, but Cassimon refuses to see him, and it seems he has good cause. Meanwhile, Gerardi's family come under heavy pressure from various bad Belgians.