Here’s an easy one for you: What begins with a “B” and has been the talk of Great Britain recently? Go to the back of the class if you answered “Brexit” and pat yourself on the back if you said “Bodyguard.”
The series premieres worldwide on Netflix on October 24, but over 10 million Brits’ Sunday evenings in September were spent being more concerned about cliff-hanger endings involving a fictitious politician and her bodyguard than any potential “cliff-edge” exits from the European Union – in the process making “Bodyguard” the BBC’s most watched show in a decade.
It’s easy to see why. It’s one of those crowd-pleasing thrillers that manages to be both cerebral and terrible, where characters constantly do dumb things that leave you howling at the screen. Yet despite – or because of – this, it’s totally engrossing and leaves you eagerly awaiting the next installment. Just remember to collect your disbelief from wherever you leave it suspended during each episode.
In fact, this six-part, six-hour series proves that it is possible to be smart and dumb at pretty much the same time. It must be what it feels like to be George W. Bush. At its best, it’s a tense thriller that grips like a gecko. At its worst, it’s less plausible than a Brett Kavanaugh testimony and has more holes than even President Donald Trump might consider reasonable on a weekend. It also has various plot twists that, like an albino in a snowstorm, you just won’t see coming.
To be fair, as far-fetched as some of the plot points are, the show is actually drawing upon several real-life incidents for powerful dramatic effect. (I won’t spoil anything here, but after you’ve finished the series just google “Alan Johnson and Scotland Yard” or check out any Lady Di biography.)
The show’s writer-creator, Jed Mercurio, is best known for another BBC thriller, “Line of Duty” (season five returns next year), in which the U.K. police’s internal affairs division investigates possible wrongdoings by fellow officers. That series is renowned for its interrogations, which see suspects being grilled in scenes lasting up to 30 minutes, ratcheting up the tension to crazy levels.
That technique is also in evidence here, bolstered by at least one big action scene per episode. Indeed, while “Bodyguard” is unlikely to ever be mistaken for the 1992 film “The Bodyguard,” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston (and sorry for putting that song in your head again), it is a strange hybrid of police procedural and Hollywood blockbuster.
It starts with a doozy of a set piece as Metropolitan Police officer David Budd (Scottish actor Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones”) takes the train back to London with his two young kids. An ex-serviceman who did several tours of Afghanistan, he’s not the type to stare aimlessly out of the window and watch the world go by. Instead, he regards every single person he sees as a potential terror threat – which must make him a really fun guy at parties.
He spies a couple of incidents that get his Spidey senses tingling and before you can say “All change at Euston,” he’s trying to talk a suicide bomber out of detonating a device and taking the whole train with them. As explosive starts go, this is right up there with the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008), and it’s debatable who’s sweating more during the negotiations – Budd or those watching at home.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Budd isn’t blown to bits. Instead, his heroic actions earn him a plum job in the Met Police’s Royalty and Specialist Protection Command, serving as the personal protection officer – or PPO; the show does love its jargon – to government minister Julia Montague.
She is brilliantly played by “Line of Duty” alum Keeley Hawes, who looks more likely to torch a wheat field than run through one a la British Prime Minister Theresa May. Indeed, Montague would probably secure more votes than May if the Conservative Party held a leadership contest tomorrow. And although her political allegiance is never explicitly stated, it’s clear she’s not a Labour MP because at no point does she start frothing at the mouth about "those bloody Zionists."
Montague has adopted a take-no-prisoners approach as home secretary (kind of like the U.S. attorney general or Israeli justice minister) and sees the terror attack as an opportunity to push through a draconian new law that would give the security forces even more surveillance powers. (Good luck trying to find space for even more closed-circuit TV cameras in Britain, where there is reportedly one CCTV camera for every 10 people and the average Londoner is caught on camera about 300 times per day.)
Despite being the hero of the hour, Budd is clearly damaged goods – so much so that he may as well have the letters P-T-S-D tattooed on his knuckles. He is recently separated from his wife (played somewhat blandly by Sophie “Peaky Blinders” Rundle), is drinking too much and suffering the kind of shakes you don’t get at McDonald’s (although both are equally bad for you).
There are brief scenes where we see Budd’s distaste for the hawkish politics of the woman he is safeguarding (these politicians blithely send young men like him to fight – and die – in far-off lands, you see). Yet for a show featuring a government minister at its heart, this is a show disappointingly light on weighty discussions. Mercurio is more interested in the politics of policing than actual politics. Sure, the thriller elements work well, but I wanted some recognition that politicians might actually talk about, well, politics occasionally.
The other key storyline concerns a potential deep state conspiracy where various plotters may be either seeking to derail or aid Montague’s political ambitions. Is it just me that wants to reach for my (metaphorical) revolver whenever I hear the phrase “deep state” these days? It’s the lazy cliché at the heart of too many modern shows and far-right news channels – and British television already did it so much better back in the 1980s with the likes of “Edge of Darkness” and “A Very British Coup,” which remain benchmarks in British television.
Much of the show’s appeal lies in the casting of the equally charismatic Madden and Hawes. He’s the most unusual of action heroes: The one who lets you see the fear in his eyes when he’s in the line of fire, a man fully aware of his own mortality. After this performance, it’s no surprise to see Madden being touted as the next James Bond. But while Hawes is totally believable and compelling in her role, I wish she had been given more to do – and yes, I am aware the show is called “Bodyguard,” not “Minister.”
Various experts have highlighted what the show gets wrong about PPOs (for example, bodyguards would blend in at a restaurant, not draw attention to themselves by sitting there and staring blankly at their subjects). Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter whether “Bodyguard” is accurate but whether it works as a thriller, whether its characters are engaging and whether you are entertained. On all three counts, it succeeds.
But if it’s a choice between “Bodyguard” and Mercurio’s other show – well, “Line of Duty,” I will always love you.
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