Bodyguard was another case of six addiction.
The latest BBC Sunday-night-at-nine drama was an improvement on recent occupants of that slot. But it still suffered from British TV’s sextuple obsession.
The new Jed Mercurio (Cardiac Arrest, Bodies, Critical, Line of Duty) drama finished on Sunday, with an enjoyable if rather ludicrous conclusion that depended on a scheme to stop greater state surveillance by doing a massively evil thing that would support the case for greater state surveillance. Hoo-kee, then. All rather abruptly explained in the last few minutes.
Bodyguard depicted the increasing dilemmas and anguish of an anti-politics ex-soldier working as a police Principal Protection Officer to a senior member of the Cabinet, as various people around him got shot at and blown up. It was violent, atmospheric — thanks to Ruth Barrett’s Shepard Tone score — and sexy. Well, sort of. The pert buttocks of Detective Sergeant David Budd (Richard Madden) were released without charge a couple of times. And Keeley Hawes’s Home Secretary, Julia Montague, was shown seductively rummaging through her ministerial box. But even after they fully debriefed each other, the only real chemistry between them was when they discussed the forensics of improvised explosive devices.
In the first episode, Budd strips off his shirt in a TV green room to lend it to Montague whose blouse has been covered in coffee just before an interview. He insists it will fit because his ballistic undershirt gives him an upper body type similar to hers. What a compliment. She later returns it, complete with wire hanger and plastic cover, fresh from the dry-cleaners. Not exactly McQueen and Dunaway playing chess, huh?
While police dramas have been a staple of television entertainment for almost as long as the medium has been around, Bodyguard was the latest attempt to address the challenge they have faced in the last couple of decades: how to make the British bobby compelling when every-day crime has become rather tame in comparison to contemporary threats and adventures.
There is still a place, of course, for murder, robbery and fraud on our screens but it takes a lot more skill to keep them on primetime than it used to. Unforgotten has been just about the only watchable, more traditional detective procedural of recent years. Even the last two series of Line of Duty, Mercurio’s otherwise excellent tales of corruption and police abuse, have felt the necessity to turn into Die Hard in the last 15 minutes, with all guns blazing.
Programme-makers in the States were the first to refocus. The CSI franchises gave us geek-chic characters and settings, in an innovative flashback-as-speculation format. Others took well-established cinema tropes and spread them out over multi-episode seasons. The Sopranos and The Wire turned crime into personal journeys and business parables, from the criminals’ points of view. Homeland expanded the scope of law enforcement beyond the local thin blue line and into the agency world of counter-terror and espionage.
Thanks to The Long War, such matters have become the dramatic bar to be cleared by TV crime and thriller shows. The problem in the UK has been the continuing insistence on six episodes, and absolutely no more, per series. It’s tighter and more constraining than David Budd’s bulletproof vest.
Bodyguard did not have to be quite so dependent on a wild flurry of bombs, bullets and bonking. The potential was all there for greater psychological drama, a deeper love story, genuinely compelling mystery, political intrigue, and increasingly tense action sequences. But you need at least ten to 12 episodes to do all that anywhere near properly (viz Homeland, The Americans, Westworld and others). Squeezing everything into half that means you get something very watchable but not terribly satisfying. Like having three starters and a coffee but no main, pudding or cheese. And the non-lead characters just do not get fully rounded-out; their motivations are barely explored. The sacked special advisor, Chanelle (interests: cringey flirting and violent organised crime), could have had a show to herself.
There have been attempts to wean producers off of this six addiction. Some series of Spooks played out over eight to ten episodes. Scandi-noir’s The Bridge and Borgen were the same. The Killing’s first series was 20 episodes long. The latest Cymru-noir offerings took place over eight as well. Effectively, in the case of Hidden. Not so much with Keeping Faith, which ended without much of a story to tell.
With increasingly impressive casts, writers, locations and set-piece sequences this surely cannot be just an issue of budgets, which are obviously available. Especially considering all the opportunities for sell-through to streaming services and international rights these days. Maybe it is a hangover from a time when broadcasters doubted viewers would commit to anything longer. But near-ubiquitous ‘catch-up’ capabilities have surely changed all that.
Whatever the reason, the modern watching public deserves better. It is time for the BBC to finally accept that there is no longer any real joy of six.