‘Renegade Nell’ Review: When the Highwayman Is a Superwoman

The British television writer Sally Wainwright may not be a household name in the United States, but for more than a decade she has been turning out television shows whose variety and consistently high quality few writer-producers can match.

“Scott & Bailey,” which premiered in 2011, was a smart, tart buddy-detective procedural. The blended-families drama “Last Tango in Halifax” (2012) was finely tooled, irresistible hokum, reflecting the lessons Wainwright learned during her tenure on the venerable soap opera “Coronation Street.” She raised her game with “Happy Valley” (2014), a terrific series about the intertwined work and home lives of a doggedly heroic policewoman. And she segued into costume drama with “Gentleman Jack” (2019), a fact-based Victorian saga of lesbian romance and financial maneuvering that was, like the others, well made, well acted and highly engaging.

The shows have a couple of through lines. They all take place in or near Wainwright’s home ground of Yorkshire, in northern England. And they all focus on tough, take-charge women — often women whose commitment to what they know or think is right can make them a little hard to live with.

Wainwright’s latest show, “Renegade Nell,” whose eight episodes premiered Friday on Disney+, takes her down some new paths. The action moves south, toward London (it was filmed in Oxfordshire), and further back in time, to the early 1700s. And in a significant departure, Wainwright dabbles in the supernatural: Her heroine, the commoner Nell Jackson, can summon otherworldly strength and agility to battle the black magic wielded by her higher-born foes.

Nell, played by Louisa Harland of “Derry Girls,” is another Wainwright heroine who must learn how to harness her strength and high spirits, and not do collateral damage to her family and friends. (She gets called “unnatural,” an epithet also applied to the protagonist of “Gentleman Jack” when she acts in ways women are not supposed to.) Nell’s challenge is greater, though, because the strength is so unexpected. Stumbling upon a stagecoach robbery, she is about to be shot when a tiny light appears and gives her ruffian-bashing, bullet-dodging capabilities.

The light turns out to be a winged humanoid named Billy, played by Nick Mohammed of “Ted Lasso,” who returns to bail out Nell whenever she is in danger (though not always as promptly as she would like). And she is in danger a lot: Her new powers, combined with some complicated and tragic circumstances, turn her into a fugitive suspected of multiple murders and eventually put her in the unlikely position of saving the British crown from a Jacobite invasion. (Thematically, it’s helpful for Wainwright that the actual monarch at the time, who faced an actual coup attempt, was a woman, Queen Anne, played in the show with an arch sang-froid by Jodhi May.)

It is worth mentioning here that “Renegade Nell” is a comedy, and that various traditions of British comedy figure heavily in how it looks and feels. It’s like a gender-switched “The Beggar’s Opera” (the most famous play of the show’s time period), with a male highwayman, Devereux (Frank Dillane), as the female lead’s comic foil. It borrows from the picaresque novels of the 18th century, as Nell and a ragtag band that includes her two sisters (Bo Bragason and Florence Keen), a resourceful stablehand (Ényì Okoronkwo) and Devereux bounce around the countryside getting into and out of alarming scrapes.

And hanging in the background is Shakespeare. There are references to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “King John,” and Billy is an Ariel-like sprite who speculates that his partnership with Nell is meant to restore balance to the world, which would be in the best traditions of Shakespearean comedy.

Billy must speculate because neither he nor Nell has any idea why they have been brought together, and the audience does not know what Billy is or where he comes from.

Perhaps we will get this information if a second season materializes; in the meantime, its lack contributes to a general fuzziness at the show’s center. Wainwright’s skill at moving the characters around and putting pithy dialogue in their mouths makes “Renegade Nell” very enjoyable from moment to moment, and most of the performers — particularly Keen, as the youngest sister, and Dillane — draw you in.

But as the season moves along, and the metaphor of magic as social and political power becomes more obvious — enabling Nell while it corrupts the aristocratic schemers ably played by Adrian Lester and Alice Kremelberg — the show doesn’t solidify its hold on your emotions. And the comedy, while reasonably deft, remains on a low boil.

Like a lot of period pieces these days, the show is amusing, intelligent and very well executed, and it shrewdly exploits its comic and magical elements to get away with audience-friendly anachronisms of language, behavior and casting. The corollary, and perhaps the consequence, is that it feels like an exceedingly clever card trick — well worth the “Ooh,” but unlikely to linger in the mind.

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