Confession time: I’d never read any John LeCarré until after I’d seen the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s a brilliant movie, and one that sent me scuttling to read the Karla trilogy and then watch the two excellent Alec Guinness adaptations. After devouring the first two episodes of Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, I can think of no higher compliment than to say that I’m bulk-buying the book series it was adapted from in short order.
Slow Horses is an adaptation of Mick Herron’s series of Slough House novels, featuring a group of British spies trapped in administrative purgatory. MI5 agents who have committed high-profile mistakes but know far too much to be fired are dumped in the dingy Slough House. There, they are given harmless busywork too demeaning for real spies to undertake, all the while being tormented and demeaned by division chief Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman.
It’s this world that former superstar spy River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is thrust into after his own notorious error while out in the field. There, he’s given jobs like searching a dodgy journalist’s trash can and acting as a courier between offices. It’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that Cartwright’s arrival triggers something of a major case for the rejects to handle, which has mostly kicked off by the time the second episode finishes.
What Slow Horses has to offer, beyond the enjoyment of a modern-day thriller done right, is a sense of pulpy fun. A sequence in the second episode I can’t spoil plays out with the beats of a Chuck Jones cartoon rather than an entirely gritty espionage potboiler. It helps, too, that the show isn’t trying to make everyone a two-dimensional cut-out, which can so often be the case when prestige TV attempts to make spy-fi.
The series was created by the unfortunately named Will Smith, the British standup, actor and writer who, far as we know, has never slapped Chris Rock on stage. The dialog sparkles, not surprising given that Smith has written for Avenue 5, Veep and The Thick of It. It’s also clear-eyed about its politics, offering something approaching nuance concerning the benefits and burdens of living in a surveillance state.
Much has already been made about the fact that this is Gary Oldman’s first starring role in a TV series. But Apple also spent big to recruit serial award-winner Kristin Scott-Thomas and Jonathan Pryce, who appears as a former spymaster who has lost none of his imperial pomp. Mentions too, to Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker, a vastly more talented spy who, despite slumming it in Slough House, is actually allowed to undertake real espionage work, and Saskia Reeves’ as Lamb’s long-suffering assistant, Standish.
I’ll admit, I get a kick out of watching the once-and-hopefully-future George Smiley playing a cracked-mirror version of that same character. Lamb is trapped in the grimy whiskey and tobacco-stained late ‘70s, and Oldman has never looked grander than as a man in ruins. Even at this early stage, there are hints that Lamb was once a spectacular agent whose fall from grace was similarly staggering, but the series isn’t teasing it out in mystery-box fashion.
There are two reasons I’m recommending this to you. Firstly because I thought it was good, and I feel like sharing cool stuff is part of my job. But also because the only reason I even started Slow Horses was because I’d forgotten to cancel my TV+ subscription. I saw the email hit my inbox, and felt resentful at yet another £4.99 that I’d wasted on something I’ve not used at all. (I keep meaning to use that money to subscribe to Disney+ now that my kids are old enough to sit through a whole movie in one sitting.) Ted Lasso aside, TV+ in my mind remains the home of mostly middle-of-the-road fare that aspires to do well enough on either coast, and much of the middle.
It didn’t help that The Morning Show left me cold, and I can’t imagine myself watching Jason Momoa wandering around a forest in in See. You can’t fault Apple for not wanting to just throw a fortune at its TV department and flood its service with forgettable originals. But that deliberate process of slowly building up its catalog has always made me feel a bit like a chump for paying for the privilege of not wanting to watch what was on offer. And yet, after Slow Horses, I decided to take a gamble and watch Severance. I’m only a few episodes deep, and it’s not one of those shows you can, or should, binge over a couple of bloodshot nights, but it is good. It’s a left-field exploration of the nature of memory, personality and corporate life that defies easy explanation. (Also, check out our interview with creator Dan Erickson!)
If I needed to have a grand theory about All Of This (and I’m not sure at this point that I do), it’s that TV+ needs to get weirder. Yes, it has the cash to buy as many prestige-TV series as it wants, but we’re swimming in worthy, often dull series (looking at you, WeCrashed!). I’ve still not bothered with either of the two (two!) Tom Hanks films Apple rescued from the ignominy of a COVID-era cinema release. But shows like Severance and Slow Horses, one a highbrow exploration of something, the latter the televisual equivalent of a luxury dirty burger. Neither of which you could imagine HBO, even in its post-Netflix anxiety pomp, buying. Hopefully we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the future, and I can feel a bit less resentful about paying for TV+.