Sally Wainwright Disney+ Adventure Show Delivers


Having established herself at the BBC with the police procedural “Happy Valley” and the crossdressing costume drama “Gentleman Jack,” screenwriter-turned-showrunner Sally Wainwright has followed countless creatives and taken the Disney shilling to initiate her latest project. You can hardly blame her, given the reduced offer the cash-strapped British broadcaster is now extending even to its more illustrious dramaturges: rarely more than three episodes per series and four characters per scene. Imposed by post-Brexit belt-tightening, this sorry set of limitations has exasperated those obliged to work within them while dispiriting viewers, left watching the life — and the talent — drain from primetime broadcasts.

Mashing up historical and fantastical elements, the pricey-looking, eight-part “Renegade Nell” rides into a surprisingly crowded field for light period entertainments straddling the Stuart and Georgian eras, emerging after the sadly short-lived BBC comedy “The Witchfinder” and Apple TV+’s recent “The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin.” While far less aggressively daft than either of those, “Renegade Nell” skews markedly younger than Wainwright’s past fare. The Disneyfication is evident from its first bout of action, wherein ingesting a luminescent sprite allows our ragged pipsqueak of a heroine to overthrow even the burliest male foes. Call it the “Avengers” effect: In the streaming sector, even highway robbery must now be carried out by folks with superpowers.

In fairness, Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland) needs all the help she can get, having long been thought dead by her publican father (Craig Parkinson) and younger sisters (Florence Keen and Bo Bragason). Returning to her North London home, this revenant is soon embroiled in a high-society plot involving a local landowner (Pip Torrens), his weak-willed son (Jake Dunn) and vengeful daughter (Alice Kremelberg), and a string-pulling Earl (Adrian Lester). The fallout finds Nell playing both outlaw and surrogate mother to her siblings, assisted by the aforementioned sprite: Billy Blind, a gender-flipped Tinkerbell played by “Ted Lasso” co-star Nick Mohammed, sometimes gnat-small, sometimes as big as a manor house.

Billy isn’t the only shapeshifter here; while on the run, working-class Nell is seen to assume the identity of a society belle, a Scottish countess and a prison sawbones, one of several points where Harland’s styling takes a turn for the androgynous and the show begins to resemble “Gentleman Jack” for kids. Within its PG-13 certificate, “Renegade Nell” proves something of a chameleon itself, metabolizing not just recent developments in period drama and superhero land, but the newly Disney-backed “Doctor Who”, and the palace intrigues of “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones.”(When a theatrical troupe draws alongside our fugitives, the show even starts to assume some of the self-reflexivity of late-period “Deadwood.”)

At every turn, developments are backed up with appreciable craft. Tom Pye’s costuming has the texture and variation you feel the British film and TV industry could now do in its sleep, but which must involve long nights either way. DoPs Oli Russell and Catherine Goldschmidt lean into their verdant Oxfordshire locations, making a Constable landscape out of every establishing shot, while production designer Anna Pritchard constructs both shadowy passageways and bright, “Marie Antoinette”-like salons for Nell and her pursuers to dash through. The stunt team, headed by Abbi Collins and Lucy Egerton, engineer a couple of stagecoach chases of which the venerable Yakima Canutt might well have approved.

If there’s a weakness, ironically, it’s the writing, which initially strikes the ear as more functional than especially striking, and quantifiably Wainwright-lite. (Wainwright wrote the first five, with Emme Hoy and Georgia Christou rounding things off.) Those early installments have some measure of fun with Nell’s vernacular and period codeswitching, yet the plot is caught spinning the carriage wheels, as in those comic-book runarounds this project has sublimated. It takes half the series for Nell to encounter anybody with comparable powers, and her relative invincibility means minor characters have to be put in harm’s way just to introduce any immediate jeopardy.

Brisk, 40-minute episodes — shared by directors Amanda Brotchie, M.J. Delaney and Ben Taylor — ensure the show remains this side of genial, however, and “Nell” eventually shrugs off the burdens of worldbuilding to reveal what in the sterile context of Disney+ originals resembles something like an authored personality. It’s not just that the narrative stakes are raised; the writing begins to dig more assiduously into England’s checkered heritage and inherited class prejudices, and by the time of the musical number that opens the penultimate episode, the show looks to be following its own idiosyncratic path. (One very queer daydream seems to have escaped the Disney machine altogether.)

The actors catch the end-of-semester vibe quickly, and run with it. Previously seen on Channel 4’s and Netflix’s beloved “Derry Girls,” Harland weaponizes an arsenal of rough edges and sharp angles — a nose like an accusatory finger, fierce elbows and a sandpapery Camden accent — and hauls those early stretches along with a bristling physicality. (One conceivable pitch: what if Amy Winehouse had been driven to hold up stagecoaches for a living?) As the Machiavellian villain, Lester makes smart work of the reams of exposition that typically motor this kind of show; Art Malik is funny as a doddering lawyer and judge; while Joely Richardson’s imperious aristocrat somehow lives up to her given billing of Lady Eularia Moggerhangar.

If the show just ducks the blandly interchangeable air of the now-innumerable Marvel and Star Wars spinoffs with which “Nell” will be competing for eyes, that may be down to the way it’s internalized the irreverent spark of British pantomime, much as Nell does Billy Blind. This is the handiwork of a writer-creator whose earlier shows set a forbiddingly high bar, and who — like her heroine — is now on the lam, trying to regain her bearings in the kingdom of corporate-friendly streaming entertainment. Spry and game, there’s nothing forbidding about “Renegade Nell,” but its Easter release date feels right for a show that plays like an uncommonly well-appointed holiday special — and I suspect Nell Jackson will likely ride again.

Season 1 of “Renegade Nell” streams on Disney+ from March 29; all eight episodes were screened for review.



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