Sat. May 28th, 2022

Slow Horses accomplishes the feat of making the world of espionage seem like a dreary daily grind. The spies in this drily humored series are far more likely to be found combing through rubbish than pouring martinis, and stacks of decades-old parking tickets are the closest they come to a luxury sports car.

Apple’s show, adapted from Mick Herron’s 2010 novel, opens with what might be considered a more conventional bit of screen spy work. Young agent River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is shadowing a terrorist at Stansted Airport. But things quickly get out of hand after he’s fed some false intel, and what should have been a slick operation turns into a frantic chase through the terminal and ends with a bomb being detonated.

The good news for River is that the mission was just an elaborate training exercise. The bad news is that due to this botched simulation he was withdrawn from the field and transferred to a satellite branch of MI5 referred to as “Slough House”, a place for spooks who’ve been spooked and intelligence officers lacking intelligence. Their service is only secret in the sense that it’s not really worth talking about.

This ramshackle department is run by the wheezing, insalubrious drunkard Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman, looking every bit his name). Bearing a permanent mocking smirk, he spends his days reminding his unit of the failures that brought them under his charge. “MI fucking useless” he brands them, which is not the sharpest put-down ever penned by series creator Will Smith (not that one), who as a writer on The Thick of It was once responsible for some of Malcolm Tucker’s expletive-laden diatribes.

But River is not content just to sit around paying penance in this purgatory career. After a Muslim student is taken hostage by a group of nationalist extremists, River attempts to track down those behind the kidnapping in the hope of regaining favor with MI5 chief Diana Taverner (the immaculately poised and as yet underused Kristin Scott Thomas).

While the plot moves along at a steady canter throughout the opening two episodes, the performances of the two thoroughbred actors and the openly comic scenes feel a little underpowered. While it’s entirely watchable, Slow Horses is unlikely to drag you away from whatever else you’re currently viewing.

★★★ ☆☆

On Apple TV Plus from April 1; new episodes released weekly

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