'Bodyguard': TV Review

Massively entertaining, flaws and all.
10/24/2018

The crowd-pleasing British series arrives on Netflix and weaves a sometimes too tangled but nevertheless thrilling web of intrigue.

One of Britain's biggest television hits comes to Netflix as the thrilling, maddening but never boring Bodyguard lands on these shores having riveted (and, no doubt, partially infuriated) our cousins.

Created and written by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), known for his tense and intricate plotting (he's also a novelist), Bodyguard succeeds almost immediately at setting the hook and then races for six episodes and six-plus hours of pulse-pounding action and brain-bending twists, which, when it's all said and done, is more than enough to justify watching.

The trouble with the series is that once it has you in its thrall — again, immediately — it almost doesn't know when to stop, with Mercurio constructing an ever-increasing, wide-ranging set of whodunit options, red-herrings and oh-no-you-didn't moments that start to take their toll on credibility, especially in the last 75-minute episode.

Starring Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as PTSD-suffering police specialist David Budd, Bodyguard finds him on a train with his two children when a terrorist attack is unfolding. Credit goes not only to Mercurio for crafting the dense plot that follows, but directors Thomas Vincent (episodes 1-3) and John Strickland (4-6) who never take their foot off the gas and together create some of the most nerve-wracking tension you'll find on any series. 

The train scene, where Budd is trying to stop a suicide bomber, accomplishes two things immediately: It introduces the traumatic stress disorder that serving in the military brought to Budd, and sets up how London's terrorist threat levels are higher than those in the U.S. (a running theme that Mercurio, Vincent and Strickland illustrate through public-transportation action scenes that leave the viewer, and London, feeling vulnerable at every turn). In the process, it also neatly sets up the political intrigue at the heart of Bodyguard.

Budd is assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a conservative MP who is simultaneously pushing legislation that would allow the government unfettered access to online and digital conversations and search queries of the public and using those conservative fear tactics to advance her career and possibly unseat the prime minister (with nefarious intrigue tossed on top).

As the creator and writer of one of Britain's most successful series based on a police anti-corruption task force (Line of Duty, with four seasons available on Hulu and another two still to air), Mercurio has honed his ability to cast doubt on various characters and build shocking twists, something that gets enhanced and refined on Bodyguard. One of the problems here is that it's almost impossible to get into plot specifics because Mercurio has booby-trapped his tale with dense reversals and sly feints which need to remain unspoiled for the pay-off.

What makes the series a success is the fact that it keeps some of its bigger-picture reveals hidden enough not to be made out early in the game, though some twists can be guessed at fairly easily. What keeps things fair is that Mercurio is willing to kill off characters or slow-reveal motivation that puts any hunches you might have in jeopardy. While that's fun for the most part, it's also massively confusing in spots and, near the end, gives way to the sense that logic and motivation are suffering (one very long scene clearly made to ratchet up tension in the final episode ends up being more annoying than captivating, for example). 

But those are minor gripes given the thrill factor and how easily Bodyguard grabs your attention and doesn't relinquish it, even when the show starts to feel a little too similar to the American series 24, including all the ridiculous parts that went along with it. 

That Mercurio doesn't just use PTSD as a jumping-off point for plotting purposes and returns to examine its damaging core repeatedly is admirable. Madden is tasked with a lot here and pulls it off with aplomb. He has to convey that police/bodyguard stoicism and watchful eye as he tries to keep the home secretary alive, which entails a lot of rigid body language and looking straight ahead while opening doors, then has to come unraveled with his PTSD and the ever-widening plot at the heart of the series that seems to implicate his character at every turn. Hawes does an excellent job of not making her character one-dimensional (though others here are a little too predictable) and she manages to create private-life warmth while her public conservatism alienates (and there's a Machiavellian trait in her that's welcome since it's so regularly given to men in power instead). Credit Bodyguard also with having a very large and mostly effective ensemble cast.

While Mercurio might have gilded the plot a bit in retrospect, he certainly succeeds in pulling off a number of twists, never lets the intrigue flag and, in concert with two fine directors, has created a riveting piece of television whose minor flaws don't tarnish it enough to reduce its effectiveness.

Cast: Richard Madden, Keeley Hawes, Gina McKee, Sophie Rundle, Paul Ready, Vincent Franklin, Stuart Bowman, Nina Toussaint-White, Pippa Haywood, Ash Tandon, Nicholas Gleaves, Anjli Mohindra
Created and written by: Jed Mercurio
Directed by: Thomas Vincent, John Strickland
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)