Bodyguard became an indisputable TV phenomenon in the U.K. last month, emerging as the nation’s most-watched new drama in a decade and one that, as the Guardian put it, placed viewers “back in the world of the watercooler” again. It was the kind of show that everyone was talking about, and that you had to watch as soon as it aired, otherwise you’d be left behind.
Now we Americans get the chance to see what all those Brits have been chattering on about. Starting today, Bodyguard is streaming on Netflix, and as soon as the first episode begins, one can immediately sense why it became so popular across the pond. It stars Richard Madden, a.k.a. Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, as Sgt. David Budd, an Afghanistan vet turned police officer, who, six minutes into that first hour, is already breaking out in a panicky sweat. The show immediately thrusts him into a dicey situation: He’s on a train with his two young children when he has to jump into cop mode to help track down a suicide bomber, then talk her down from detonating the vest strapped to her torso. That lengthy opening sequence — a nail-biting search that morphs into an extremely tense negotiation — is indicative of what Bodyguard is at its best: gripping, nerve-rattling, can’t-look-away television. In spirit and execution, it reminds me of what 24 or Homeland were like at their creative and cultural apexes.
At times, it also struggles with the same kind of issues that often dogged 24 or Homeland. While Bodyguard, created by British TV vet Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), builds an elaborate web of twists and unforeseen complications in its law-enforcement-related conspiracy theories, it also occasionally slips into cliché. Professional relationships predictably turn sexual. The plot is determined to make us change our minds about who could be a mole every ten minutes. Muslim characters are pigeonholed as potential terrorists, although that’s a trope that Bodyguard tries to subvert with a modest amount of success. And yet, even on those occasions when it lands exactly where you think it’s headed, it still threads a compelling enough needle to keep its audience hooked.
After that train negotiation in episode one, David is rewarded for his quick action with a promotion: He becomes the police protection officer for Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), Britain’s Home Secretary, which is the equivalent of U.S. Secretary of State. Montague is a hard-line politician who supported the level of British involvement in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and who advocates for even more government power and surveillance capabilities in the interest of public safety. Her views don’t jibe with David’s, who suffers from PTSD incurred as a result of his service in Afghanistan. Her unbridled ambition rankles plenty of others as well, including the prime minister. After an attempted terrorist attack at a school — one that David’s children coincidentally happen to attend — Montague puts Security Service officials in charge of the investigation, heightening an already tense relationship between that agency and the Metropolitan Police. The woman has plenty of enemies, which makes David’s new job an instant challenge on top of his preexisting personal challenges, including a broken relationship with his wife, Vicky (Sophie Rundle), who seems ready to move on without him. Complicating things further: the fact that David and Julia find themselves increasingly attracted to each other.
Yes, it’s a bit eye-rolling to watch as David and Julia become, inevitably, romantically intertwined. But their connection serves a purpose, by providing a foundation on which much of the six-episode season is built. The machinations of this series and the dynamics between its political personalities create a complicated puzzle that demands to be solved. That’s one of the factors that makes Bodyguard so instantly bingeable: You can’t let go until you figure out how all those pieces fit together.
Another factor that works in its favor are its suspenseful setpieces, each of which seems designed to make everyone watching kiss their cuticles good-bye. That train setup is just a sneak preview of what’s to come, including a targeted attack in episode three and an excruciating emergency situation in the final episode that brings things full circle. Thomas Vincent and John Strickland, who split directing duties, display a firm sense of control over scenes where things are rapidly spiraling out of it. They capture both the bigger picture — in terms of the stakes and, more literally, where everything is physically situated — as well as the smaller images that stand out in a crisis, like the sight of two shaky, bloody hands gripping each other while bullets ping off the body of a car.
Without his beard and regal King of the North bearing, Madden is practically unrecognizable as the man who once occupied the body of Robb Stark. He’s much more vulnerable as David, who carries himself with formal authority while handling his work duties, but becomes more jittery and emotional in private, especially as he becomes more and more desperate to defend his own reputation. Hawes, who previously worked with Mercurio in Line of Duty, is also very good here as a leader who never betrays a whiff of a desire to apologize for who she is or what she believes.
There are several unapologetic women in Bodyguard, all of them doing their jobs — which often involve supervising others — and sticking to their guns with zero hesitation. What’s beautiful is that the series doesn’t make a big show of this by announcing, “Look at all these women in powerful positions acting powerful.” Instead, it treats them the way that women in such roles should be treated: as commonplace. Given all the women in charge in this show, Bodyguard may set a record for most “Ma’ams” uttered in the course of a single season of television. Plenty of not-so-polite words get uttered as well. At one point, Anne Sampson (Gina McKee), the head of Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism division, ends a meeting by darting a look at her Secret Service counterpart, played by Stuart Bowman, then saying “Fuck you, Steve.” This is not played as some big ooh, damn! type of moment, which is totally how it would be handled if this were, say, a CBS procedural instead of a cop mystery originally produced for the BBC. “Fuck you, Steve” is just what prickly people — men or women — say to their adversaries when they feel they’ve been undermined.
Even when Bodyguard does get a bit over the top, that same British flair for understatement prevents it from feeling as ridiculous as it might in other hands. This series has business to handle, much of which will involve ratcheting up the audience’s blood pressure to agonizing heights. And it does not let anything distract from what it came here to do. No way. No ma’am.
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