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From The Dirty Dozen to The Boys to The Suicide Squad, audiences love a good semi-comic thriller about a ragtag team of rejects surprised to discover that their quirky set of mismatched skills actually mesh flawlessly to help outcasts accomplish what the establishment cannot.
Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, adapted by Will Smith — no, not that one — from the first book in Mick Herron’s British espionage series, is one of those stories, though it derives much of its murky amusement from how non-flashy and non-cool its central conceit is. It’s a droll and dour story about people who wanted to be James Bond and, instead, ended up in the most depressing workplace this side of Apple TV+’s Severance. Some of the humor from Herron’s book gets lost in translation to a six-episode season, but Slow Horses still has enough twists and turns and gritty London texture to keep its excellent ensemble busy.
Airdate: Friday, April 1 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke, Saskia Reeves, Dustin Demri-Burns, Rosalind Eleazar, Christopher Chung, Paul Higgins, Freddie Fox, Chris Reilly, Steve Waddington, Paul Hilton, Antonio Aakeel, Peter Judd
Creator: Will Smith, from the book by Mick Herron
The series begins with young MI5 agent River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) in the midst of dramatically blowing an operation at a London airport. Although his blunder may not be his fault, he gets shuffled off to Slough House. The outpost’s name is a joke — it’s so far from the main MI5 offices it might as well be in Slough, which you’ll think is a hoot if you know London geography — and feeds into a pun wherein its agents, each having committed an unforgivable gaffe of their own, are called “slow horses.”
It’s the fiefdom of gone-to-seed Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), whose primary job is to keep his charges busy doing nothing until they quit or die. Think of the slow horses like the contents of your drawer of dead batteries: They’re useless, but unless you’ve seen that one episode of How to With John Wilson, you don’t quite know how to dispose of them properly, so they sit there, taking up space.
Instead of running crucial ops, River, who may only have avoided firing because his grandfather (an excellent, sparingly used Jonathan Pryce) is an MI5 legend, is stuck going through bags of garbage without explanation. He’s joined in the ill-lit, dingy offices — there’s fine production design from Tom Burton — by the likes of grumpy Sid (Olivia Cooke), cocky Roddy (Christopher Chung), scatter-brained Min (Dustin Demri-Burns), ultra-annoying Struan (Paul Higgins) and the enigmatic Catherine (Saskia Reeves). Each occupant of Slough House is there for a reason, but not all of their sins are publicly known. The only thing that matters is that they’re given as little responsibility as possible.
Then, a young man named Hassan (Antonio Aakeel) is taken hostage and his abductors promise to kill him in mere days and the slow horses accidentally find themselves thrust into action — or at least yanked out of inaction, much to the chagrin of Jackson and his icy superior Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Smith’s background includes The Thick of It and Veep, which may promise more mirth than Slow Horses delivers, but both shows are illustrative of the kind of workplace Slough House offers. Jackson Lamb’s cutting contempt for his charges — “You’re fucking useless, the lot of you. Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career” is a typical piece of motivation — consistently sounds like it could just as easily come from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer, though much of the dialogue is straight out of Herron’s book.
Even the slow horses with clear skills — Roddy is a master hacker, Sid appears on the surface to actually be a gifted spy — have seen their skills atrophy, and series director James Hawes introduces the world in shades of gray and brown, with the camera always shunted to the corner or placed unceremoniously behind objects. If the slow horses aren’t where they want to be, neither is Hawes, but as things escalate and the horses are forced out into London proper, there’s more color, more intimacy from the camera and the cutting accelerates. As they become the spies they were meant to be, the series becomes the spy show you might have always been expecting.
The gaps between our characters and their professional expectations and the show and genre expectations is large in the beginning; it may take viewers some time to warm to the series when it’s about a group of spies who spend their days poring over meaningless documents and clock out promptly at 5 p.m. because there’s no point in sticking around.
Smith and Hawes capture the gloomy desperation of Slough House, but they can’t quite crack the hostage plotline that is also the weakest portion of Herron’s book, an uncomfortable blending of real events — the perspective on right-wing extremism, both in the U.K. and globally, probably should be much sharper as a snapshot of post-le-Carré spycraft — and twists-for-twists’-sake. Hassan, whose perspective isn’t depicted, spends far too long as a one-note victim, though I’ll credit Smith with improving the way the storyline plays out as the season builds to a strong crescendo.
It’s initially tough to get a feel for Oldman’s character, who’s introduced farting himself awake after a midday nap in a grimy office surrounded by rotting leftovers and discarded documents. That we assume beneath the slovenly exterior is some manner of brilliance comes more from our expectations of Oldman than anything we see from a man who looks to be more Mank than George Smiley.
Of course, when Slow Horses is finally able to let Oldman and Thomas go head-to-head, it’s every bit the clash of the titans you’d hope for. Oldman’s performance thrives when you can see the hints — only hints, mind you — of Lamb’s avuncular concern for his charges lurking beneath the coarse, flatulent exterior. He’s especially good with Reeves, whose character has one of the season’s better arcs.
As the newcomer to a group of salty veterans, River is designed as a callow character, and Lowden solidly conveys the sense of a frustrated man who hasn’t quite given up on getting his life back on track, but might be getting close. He and Cooke have some solid bickering charm. From the other end of the spectrum, Demri-Burns and Rosalind Eleazar possess the series’ only real sweetness as two lonely burnouts who maybe could find hope in each other.
Streamers need subscription drivers, shows so good you subscribe to the service. With Severance and Pachinko, Apple TV+ already had a pair of those this spring. Slow Horses, with its slow build, isn’t quite at that level. But streamers also need subscription maintainers, shows that encourage viewers to stick around after they’ve exhausted the marquee titles. Slow Horses is in that category, and with additional episodes based on Herron’s Dead Lions already in the can, there’s potential for these characters and this world to grow richer with time.
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