LONDON -- It's been pretty grim in Britain. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
But two months ago, the country found a way to come together, heal the divisions and ignore the politicians. Well, the real ones at least.
The BBC One series Bodyguard, written by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), debuted here in late August, drawing more than 10 million television viewers over seven days for its first episode, the largest audience for a new drama on British TV since Downton Abbey. You may never have heard of this show, which stars Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and Keeley Hawes (The Durrells in Corfu), but it had Britain riveted.
Unfolding in unfashionable weekly installments, Bodyguard fueled nonstop speculation in the British media about the twists, turns, implications and resolution of its hall-of-mirrors plot, which involves an Afghanistan War veteran assigned to guard the chilly and ambitious home secretary, together with assorted terrorist threats and back-stabbing political intrigue.
More than 10 million viewers tuned in the night of the final episode, in late September. Counting delayed viewing, more than 24 million watched at least part of the first season, according to the BBC. "We're back in the world of the water cooler -- a bygone era when we all watched TV at the same time," Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian.
Netflix, which acquired the series at an early stage in production, released Bodyguard last week in 190 countries. "Clearly it created a big water cooler moment in the U.K.," says Larry Tanz, the vice president of content acquisition at Netflix. "Now you will get global conversations going, crossing different cultures and languages."
Do you care? Should you care? Why was it so popular in Britain? Will it hit the same cultural nerve in the United States? Here is a spoiler-free guide to who's who, what's what and some theories (OK, speculation) about why Bodyguard kept the Brits riveted.
What's it about?
David Budd (Richard Madden), a former soldier, is assigned as the protection officer for Britain's home secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Budd is estranged from his wife, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and angry about the decision to send British troops to Afghanistan, which Montague supported.
A quick succession of high-adrenaline events is woven into lower-key intrigue that includes venomous rivalry between the police and the secret service, and a mysterious document that may implicate someone very high up in government and allow Montague to make a grab for power. Sexual tension makes an obligatory, steamy appearance. Meanwhile, the poker-faced Budd remains mostly inscrutable. Is he really protecting Montague? Or does he intend to use his position to take revenge for Afghanistan?
Why was the nation spellbound?
Mercurio already has one hugely successful series, Line of Duty, running on BBC One, so he has a following among British viewers who love the convoluted twists and nothing-is-what-it-seems turns of that show. The casting of Madden, who played Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, definitely didn't hurt. (Bodyguard has attracted exceptionally high numbers of the coveted 18-34 age group.) Neither did the fact that he is also what the British call "fit." (Naturally Madden is already being identified as the next James Bond.)
In a telephone interview, Madden said he was "absolutely blown away" by the success of Bodyguard, adding that the show touched on "a lot of subjects we can relate to around privacy; how much right the government has to read your texts and emails, how that would play out."
Mark Lawson, a culture columnist for The Guardian, attributed the show's success to its blend of gripping narrative and salaciousness. Bodyguard combines "the most popular genres in British TV" -- the crime drama and the conspiracy thriller -- while "also incorporating the always popular subplot of forbidden sex," he wrote in an email.
Mercurio's "exceptional gift for tension" is enhanced by a reputation for killing off major figures in early episodes of a series, Lawson said.
So how will U.S. audiences respond?
One big difference for United States audiences is that Netflix has released all the episodes of Bodyguard simultaneously, whereas British audiences largely watched the show from week to week, with cliffhangers building chatter and suspense. "We are all in the same time zone here, and it reminded everyone of that lost pleasure of picking over the same hour of TV," said Piers Wengers, the BBC executive in charge of dramas.
British television drama, Wengers said, is built on the traditions of British theater and on heavily serialized narrative, often written by one person. "You get a single vision," he said. "I think Bodyguard had the time-honored trick of forcing viewers to lean in and think about what would happen next."
Mercurio said he hoped storytelling would prevail even if watching habits were different. "It's very fast-paced with lots of thrills," he said. "I would hope that's what people respond to."
Style on 11/01/2018
Print Headline: Bodyguard on Netflix after conquering Britain