Slow Horses, based on the first book in the Slough House series by author Mick Herron, is the newest addition to the Apple TV+ roster of thrillers.
In the series, which premieres Friday, Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the leader of a group of misfit spies who work cases in secret while MI5 looks down its nose at the scrubs.
Directed by James Hawes and created by Will Smith (no, not that Will Smith), the first two episodes of this oddball spy show prove reasonably diverting.
Slow Horses recap: Episodes 1 and 2
As the series kicks off, MI5 agent River Cartwright (played by Jack Lowden) has made a rather large error. At an airport surveillance operation and possible sting, he apprehends the wrong suspect.
After they realize their mistake, he gives chase across an airport and into a subway station to find the real suspect, a man with a bomb in his backpack. Cartwright doesn’t shoot the man in time, and the terrorist detonates the bomb just as a train comes in.
Luckily, it’s a training exercise — no one’s actually dead. However, River has proven himself incapable of being a field agent.
Off to Slough House
There’s only one place for agents who screw up that big. Jackson Lamb’s office, Slough House. He heads a department running the most menial operations. His team consists of every screwup and washout that Britain’s spy service doesn’t want around anymore — the uber-paranoid, the lazy, the alcoholics and the undisciplined.
The only agent still worth a damn is young Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), River’s officemate. River feels every ounce of the degradation his demotion is meant to imply. Most days find him sifting through the trash of people they’re spying on. But one day he draws the short straw and is sent back to the main office with a package.
Feeling like he’s missing bigger things, he decides to copy the information contained in the file for himself before delivering it to his old colleague James “Spider” Webb (Freddie Fox). Spider gave River the bad information that lead to the fiasco that got him demoted, and River’s still waiting on an apology.
An off-the-books mystery
He gets enough of a look at the contents of the laptop, belonging to a journalist named Robert Hobden (Paul Hilton), that the wheels in his head start turning. Why is a journalist looking into a has-been politician and donor? Why does MI5 care enough that they’d steal this information from him?
River asks his grandfather (Jonathan Pryce), once a big deal in the intelligence services, what he makes of all this. But gramps doesn’t tell him anything more than “be careful.”
When a young student (Antonio Aakeel) is kidnapped the next day by right-wing nationalists, the pieces fall into place. Now the only problem is trying to do something about the kidnapping without appearing to do anything. If Lamb catches River doing clandestine field work, he’ll be drummed out of the intelligence service for good.
You don’t even know my real name
Slow Horses is produced by Graham Yost, perhaps best known for adapting Elmore Leonard for the small screen on the show Justified. That’s only his best-known credit, though. Yost has been writing for film and television since a stint in the writers room at Nickolodeon’s Hey Dude.
He worked on HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon and Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Yost also wrote the movie Speed, and his touch is felt here. While he didn’t write Slow Horses, the show’s mixture of laconic behavioral comedy and high-octane action beats is right in his wheelhouse.
Writers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood (Medici), and head writer/creator Will Smith (Veep, The Thick of It, Paddington 2) dance over the line between serious and ridiculous, not always landing.
Gary Oldman: A little goes a long way
The dynamic between Lamb and his secretary, the self-loathing Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), borders on unwatchable in its cruelty.
Oldman is an actor best utilized in small doses these days. What subtlety he once possessed is long gone. As with Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges, you just have to accept whatever performance he shows up with. But with Oldman comes production detail from his favorite producer Douglas Urbanski (Mank, The Social Network, Darkest Hour), which buys you a lot.
Slow Horses is meant to oscillate between breezy and heavy with the changing of a scene, and it mostly succeeds (though it’s very funny that the score always kicks in at the exact moments the characters get serious).
Sarcasm and some real chemistry
The quips the writers give work frenemies played by Jack Lowden and Olivia Cooke sometimes lean too hard into the contemporary Joss Whedon school of romantic negging. (Sarcasm these days must be applied with the most delicate touch to stand out from all the competition.) But Lowden (recently mesmerizing in the movie Benediction) and Cooke (who I’ve enjoyed since her performance in The Quiet Ones) skate past the familiar beats and sell everything as well as anyone could.
I also really enjoy the relationship between dour officemates played by Rosalind Eleazar and Dustin Demri-Burns. They’re just two lonely, middle-aged souls with no joy in their lives. Excellently drawn characters played by actors with real chemistry.
Slow Horses doesn’t deliver anything you haven’t seen before, but it’s quite charming at its best. And it’s directed and edited with verve, meaning that no bum note hangs in the air long enough that you aren’t ready for the next development. Color me intrigued.
Watch Slow Horses on Apple TV+
Slow Horses premieres April 1 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on the following Fridays.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.