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How do you make a hit political TV drama? Don’t talk too much about politics.

- November 1, 2018

How do you make a hit television show about politics? “Bodyguard” — the BBC’s most-watched show for years, now streaming on Netflix — offers one answer: Mash up the politics with memes from other genres. Part deep-state thriller, part risky romance, part police procedural and, therefore, only partly about politics, “Bodyguard” quickens the pulse without unduly troubling the intellect.

It’s the story of police Sgt. David Budd (played by “Game of Thrones” star Richard Madden) and the British cabinet minister he is assigned to protect, Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Montague, a security hawk, is piloting a sweeping anti-terrorism charter through Parliament. She finds herself under fire, figuratively and indeed literally, from civil libertarians and homegrown terrorists. At the same time, she is pursuing kompromat on the prime minister, whom she aims to shove out of the way so she can grab the post for herself.

Budd’s job is to watch her back, a duty he discharges with a stoic countenance and a staccato serenade of “Yes, ma’am!” They distrust each other at first. But as the bombs explode and bullets fly, Budd and Montague become lovers.

Plot twists unfold over the first season’s six episodes. While the conspiracies are many, the details are inessential. “Stuff is happening behind the scenes,” says Budd, which pretty much sums it up. Writer Jed Mercurio has made this sort of twist-filled take on public life something of a trademark; his serial police thriller “Line of Duty” is also a runaway hit in Britain.

While the plot sometimes plods, the two major players are compelling. Madden portrays Budd, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, much as Daniel Craig has played James Bond — with cool outward competence that hides private pain. Indeed, rumors have begun to circulate that Madden is being considered to replace Craig in the role. Budd sees the world as full of threat and intrigue. Every face in a crowd must be scanned for hostile intent. Behind every door may lie an ambush. Behind the glass of every meeting room window are conversations he can see but not hear.

The home secretary herself is the show’s most interesting character. Her motives are unclear: Is she a patriot or a particularly cynical and ambitious politician? The writers give her Blairite foreign policy views — a sure sign, given the former prime minister’s low reputation in Britain, that she is meant to be read unsympathetically. Having voted for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, now highly unpopular, she offers “no apologies for the past.” Budd at first views her with disdain, as a chicken-hawk. Her staff sees her as a “sociopath” and “the most dangerous person in the country.”

A hit show in Britain does not necessarily translate to the United States, but initial reactions have been positive. Madden’s performance has mostly drawn praise, although New York Times critic Mike Hale found him a bit one-note. Several reviewers saw Budd as a British Carrie Mathison, of Showtime’s “Homeland,” a security officer hunting down a complex conspiracy. But Budd also has more than a hint of Nick Brody, Mathison’s “Homeland” antagonist, a troubled veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that sent him off to war and then largely forgot about him.

Beyond the Afghanistan/Iraq angle, “Bodyguard” mostly steers clear of contemporary British issues. There’s no mention of Brexit; “That’s a different drama,” Mercurio says. But the show does portray a nation that is ill at ease with itself, that sees threats more readily than opportunities, that is led by a political class that spends most of its time fighting among itself, and that is having a hard time distinguishing truth from fiction. Perhaps, then, this is a show about politics after all.

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Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.