Confession time: I didn’t read John LeCarré until after I saw the 2011 movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy† It’s a brilliant film, and one that made me sink 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 horsesI can think of no greater compliment than to say that I buy the book series from which it is adapted in large quantities in a short period of time.
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 made high-profile mistakes, but know far too much to be fired, are dumped in the dingy Slough House. There they are given harmless busy work that is too humiliating for real spies to undertake, while they are tormented and humiliated by division chief Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman.
It’s this world that former superstar spy River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) finds himself in after his own infamous mistake while in the field. There he landed jobs such as rummaging through an untrustworthy journalist’s trash can and acting as a courier between offices. It’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that Cartwright’s arrival sets off a major case for the rejections, which is usually started by the time the second episode ends.
What slow horses has to offer, in addition to the fun of a modern thriller well executed, is a sense of pulpy fun. One series in the second episode I Can’t Spoil is set to the beats of a Chuck Jones cartoon rather than an all-gritty spy cauldron. It also helps that the show doesn’t try to make everyone a two-dimensional cutout, which can be the case so often when prestige TV tries to spy-fi.
The series was created by the sadly named Will Smith, the British stand-up, actor and writer who, as far as we know, has never hit Chris Rock on stage. The dialogue sparkles, unsurprisingly considering that Smith has written for avenue 5† Veep and The thick of it† It is also clear about its politics, offering something approaching the nuance of the benefits and burdens of living in a surveillance state.
Much has been said about this being Gary Oldman’s first lead role in a TV series. But Apple has also spent a lot of money recruiting series award winner Kristin Scott-Thomas and Jonathan Pryce, who appears as a former spy master who has lost none of his imperial splendor. Also mentions Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker, a much more talented spy who, despite sleeping it in Slough House, gets to actually do real spy 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 play a cracked-mirror version of that same character. Trapped in the filthy whiskey and tobacco-stained late ’70s, Lamb has never looked grand as a man in ruins. Even at this early stage, there are hints that Lamb was once a spectacular cop whose fall from grace was also staggering, but the series doesn’t mysteriously tease it.
There are two reasons why I recommend this to you. First 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 forgot to cancel my TV+ subscription. I saw the email land in my inbox and felt disgusted at another £4.99 wasted on something I didn’t use at all. (I continue to plan to use that money to get a Disney+ subscription now that my kids are old enough to sit through an entire movie in one sitting.) Ted Lasso as an aside, TV+ remains home to mostly mid-range fare in my mind that aspires to do well enough on both coasts, and much of the middle.
That didn’t help the morning show left me cold, and I can’t imagine watching Jason Momoa wandering through a forest in See† You can’t blame Apple for not just throwing a fortune at its TV department and flooding its service with forgettable originals. But that deliberate process of slowly building up his catalog has always made me a bit of a sucker for paying for the privilege of not wanting to look at what was on offer. And yet, afterwards slow horsesI decided to take a chance and see severance pay† I’m only a few episodes deep, and it’s not one of those shows you can, or should, binge over a few bloodshot nights, but it’s Good† It is a leftist exploration of the nature of memory, personality and business that defies no simple explanation. (Check out our interview with creator Dan Erickson too!)
If I had to have a grand theory about? All of this (and I’m not sure at this point if I do), it’s that TV+ should get stranger† Yes, it has the money to buy as many prestige TV series as it wants, but we’re swimming in dignified, often boring series (looking at you, We crashed!† I still haven’t dabbled in one of the two (two!) Tom Hanks movies that saved Apple from the infamy of a COVID-era theatrical release. But shows as severance pay and slow horses, a highbrow exploration of something, the latter the television equivalent of a luxury dirty citizen. Neither could you imagine HBO buying, even in its post-Netflix scare splendor. Hopefully we’ll see more stuff like this in the future, and I feel a little less outraged about paying for TV+.
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