When your super-spy, vampire hunter or detective is just a doofus, bathos and sight gags are second nature. A tried-and-true scenario is “What if a hyper-competent fictional stereotype was merely poor at their job?” For the most part, it is used for broad comedic purposes: Rowan Atkinson's Johnny English is an example of wrong James Bond spoofs.
On Apple TV Plus, there is a new British spy drama called Slow Horses. These assassins aren't all bumbling moronzos, though. However, they are a shambles. Maybe they've had too much to drink, and they don't have the gut.
Perhaps they've made a grave error. There's a chance they're merely average. They're not awful enough to get fired, but they're also not good enough to be given anything significant to accomplish.
While this circumstance may have been used for workplace humor, Slow Horses places its odd protagonists in a straightforward espionage thriller and challenges them to stay up. There are moments when the results may be amusing, despite the genre's bragging. As well, they can be a bit sharp.
What Is Slow Horses?
Mick Herron's espionage book Slow Horses, the first in the “Slough House” series about a group of underachieving spies working for MI5, the home branch of the British intelligence agencies, is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the film.
So if Apple TV Plus wants to go back to the well, Herron has already written ten more volumes in the series. Herron has a John Le Carré-like obsession with the covert intelligence world's political treachery and practical tradecraft.
He blends with muscular thriller storylines and a sarcastic, funny tone. And because of Apple's enormous riches, the series now has two A-list actors in Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott-Thomas.
Who’s Behind the Show?
Regarding UK political comedy, The Thick of It, and Armando Iannucci's follow-up to that film, Veep, Will Smith (no, not that one) has worked closely with Ianucci on Slow Horses, which he wrote and produced.
In Smith, Apple may have found another Ianucci-adjacent British writer with a jaded outlook and a love for caustic absurdity, similar to that of Succession creator Jesse Armstrong. Herron's voice is a terrific fit for his, and he has a talent for skewering the British political establishment. There's nothing in this like Veep or Succession; instead, it's a suspenseful mystery.
Slow Horses Review
His grandpa, Jonathan Pryce (Jonathan Pryce), is an espionage royalty, and River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is a potential recruit for MI5. Jackson Lamb, a slobby former member of the Secret Service, is now in charge of Slough House, a dismal purgatory for the agency's undesirable outcasts. The river is confined when a training exercise goes wrong (Oldman).
Sid (Olivia Cooke) is assigned to take files from a right-wing journalist, and River's interest is awakened when he hears about it via his deskmate. Why is Slough House in charge of operations now? What is Sid doing in Slough House, where he appears to be an expert? What game is Diana Tavener (Scott-Thomas), the chief of the considerably slicker spooks in Regent's Park, playing? Is Lamb as unconcerned as he appears to be?
Students seized by right-wing nationalist thugs and displayed on a Livestream with the threat of beheading “Slow Horses” are drawn into the action, including Lamb, who is “burned out for a reason” and may not be as inept as he appears, as Tavener warns.
Slow Horses is primarily about coping with the specter of John le Carré. Achieving the realistic, political, and finely twisting espionage thrillers that Le Carré was known for has become increasingly difficult in today's environment.
Garry Oldman was almost certainly cast for one reason: to evoke memories of his portrayal as George Smiley, the best fictional British spy ever (according to science), in the 2011 adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
So it's all about enormous multi-screen displays and intelligence war rooms. Intelligence briefings with testy lawmakers are the focus of this article. There are secret meetings held at deserted cricket fields in this story.
Among other things, it's all about dead drops, burn boxes, encrypted files, and enormous men with earpieces getting out of black SUVs. A few disturbing yet brief episodes of violence in this story. It's about each character's ambiguous motives and their equally ambiguous fates.
Le Carré used the international espionage of MI6 to examine Britain’s place in the world and cast a mournful eye on its history. Slow Horses examines the fracture lines in British society and how dishonest journalists, politicians, and, yes, spies are using them for their objectives by using MI5's domestic agenda.
While it peels back the layers of the intelligence community's scurrilous intrigues, Slow Horses does get into a more prominent topic: the disease and divide in the body politic in modern Britain.
Is Slow Horses Good?
Slow Horses is a well-crafted spy thriller that hits all the right notes for its intended audience members. It's well-paced, and Smith's screenplays manage to blend sarcasm with a true feeling of peril and a sliver of moral backbone.
It's a complex story that isn't too difficult to follow but not so complicated that it's impossible to follow. Despite the impressive ensemble, this is a modest performance that does not attempt to elevate itself to the level of great art.
Only the star power and the glitzy production values afforded by Apple's money set Slow Horses apart from the many other well-made six-episode thrillers on British television (such as Line of Duty and Happy Valley).
That's a good thing; this TV potboiler recipe doesn't need to be tinkered with. I think it requires twists that are well-placed but not too so; urgency and location; captivating characters; and a feeling of the place.
These elements are all present in Slow Horses, and experienced television director James Hawes knows how to make the most of them.
However, while Smiley may have been a role for which Oldman was best known, he's back to his roots as an exaggerated London accented obsessive-compulsive type, and he's enjoying the role.
Like Scott-Thomas, he glides around the glossy halls of the building, archly clicking and snapping instructions to subordinates, seeming silky and sophisticated. Not insightful characters, but amusing stereotypes nonetheless.
The show's core, though, is the eclectic group of characters surrounding them. This show's strategy for uncomfortable comfort television is to discover the fatal defects that doomed these losers to Slough House, then watch them overcome those flaws and construct a reluctant family.