Bodyguard, the biggest show in the U.K. since Downton Abbey, officially arrives in America on Netflix as part of a continuing campaign by the streaming service to partner with channels in need of budget boosts in order to gain exclusive first-run rights outside the home country. When the drama originally premiered in the U.K. this past summer, it had the most substantial numbers for a broadcast show since 2011, with 11 million tuning in for the finale, a figure last seen when Downton Abbey peaked at the end of Season 2. But where Downton Abbey was a conservative pastoral, soft-focused period piece about that lovely time when aristocrats still ruled and happy servants were grateful to work for them, Bodyguard is downright reactionary, speaking to an England in the throes of post-Brexit terror.
Set in present day, it opens with some of the most intense 20 minutes of TV seen all year, as Sgt. David Budd (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones, Cinderella), on his way home on a train with kids in tow, finds himself talking down a female suicide bomber in a carriage toilet. It's at once as terrifying as it is cliché. The would-be attacker is a woman in hijab, Nadiya (Anjli Mohindra), crying and sobbing as she reveals that her husband left her to do the deed and is somewhere else, planning to survive. In contrast, Budd is presented as a calm hero, a veteran with nerves of steel and a heart of gold, who is as reluctant to allow the police to shoot this poor woman as he is unwilling to let her blow up the train.
But as the story unfolds, it turns out that our "Hero of 1/10" is a complete mess inside. He's actually a PTSD suffering war vet, working for the police as a bodyguard to the powerful, a man whose wife left him because he was too emotionally unstable, and someone who regularly blames the politicians who took us to war for his lot in life. His reward for stopping the bomber is to be assigned to one of those very politicians, all of whom now get extra security details thanks to the threat level elevations. Enter Keeley Hawes (The Durrells in Corfu, The Missing) as Julia Montague, a war-happy, fear-mongering Home Secretary, who would seemingly sell the country's security in a bid for power.
And these are the good guys. No really, we're supposed to be rooting for them. It's your typical workplace romance. First, they butt heads (Budd takes his job seriously, Montague does not) and spy upon each other. Naturally, this leads them to develop a grudging respect for one another in the face of repeated assassination attempts on the Home Secretary's life. Finally, they fall in love.
That's not to say the show is poorly done. Well written, cleverly plotted, and bingable as hell, Bodyguard is a riveting six-hour watch. Hawes, who regularly holds together the flimsy Durrells by sheer charisma, is downright magnetic in a show made of stronger stuff. There are times when her eyebrows do more acting than some series stars do in total. For those worried about the coming Dame shortage when those like Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren shuffle off this mortal coil, fear not. Hawes will be there for us. Her steely-eyed take on a would-be Theresa May is worth every minute she's on screen. When she is not, the show is all the poorer for her absence.
Then there's Madden, who's inherent likableness got him cast first as virtual Prince Charming Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, and later as literal Prince Charming in Cinderella. Allowed to indulge in his natural Scottish accent, the force of his personality works miracles to smooth over the fact that the hero tilts into a bit of a terrifying psychopath at times. On the other hand, it also makes it hard to believe the question at the center of the mystery. Who is trying to kill Julia? Are there really outside forces and foreign terrorists Budd is fighting against? Or is Budd, the stereotypical loner white male who could easily tip into becoming a serial killer, the actual mastermind behind these attacks?
All this being said, it's extraordinarily striking that this is the show that gripped the U.K. this year more than any other. The level of paranoia and terror rolling off the show in waves speaks volumes of the profoundly conservative and nativist bent that has gripped Britain in the wake of Brexit. Downton Abbey may have featured a conservative fantasy base, but wrapped inside was a story of progressive values winning out and moving the country forward. Bodyguard is an enthralling yarn, but it features few of those progressive messages. If anyone is fooling themselves that another vote will change the country's mind on leaving, they best look to what the country is watching. If this show is popular enough that it might win Madden the role of the next James Bond, their entertainment choices say otherwise.
Bodyguard arrives in the US on Netflix with all six episodes for streaming on Wednesday, October 24, 2018.