DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new six-part spy show "Slow Horses," Gary Oldman plays a slovenly but brilliant MI5 agent who's come in from the cold and now oversees a group of screw-ups. The first two episodes are available on Apple TV+ on Friday, and our critic-at-large, John Powers, says this is one smart, funny thriller.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If decades of thrillers are to be trusted, the essence of espionage is not intelligence, but betrayal. The average fictional spy inhabits a world in which their fellow agents may be moles, their bosses may be on the take, and their governments will casually sacrifice them like so many pawns in a grand political chess game that only a fool would call idealistic. Such duplicity takes jauntily amusing form in the work of British novelist Mick Herron, whose "Slough House" books are the finest spy fiction since the heyday of John le Carre.
This series is now being adapted by Apple TV+ starting with the first of the novels, "Slow Horses." Boasting a slew of crackerjack actors, this six-part thriller makes an excellent introduction to Herron's gleefully corrosive vision of British intelligence and of present-day Britain. Herron's heroes are not Yoda-like geniuses like George Smiley or murderous ladies' men a la 007. They're a motley bunch mockingly known as the slow horses who have blown their careers through bungling or bad luck and been farmed out to a ratty building known as Slough House near the Barbican Station in London.
There, they do mortifyingly menial tasks under the contemptuous eye of repulsive Jackson Lamb - played by Gary Oldman - a one-time master spy in Berlin who abuses his underlings with his insults and kazooing flatulence. One of the series' main jokes is that these losers inevitably keep stumbling into the center of national security crises. That's what happens here when the swiftest of the slow horses, River Cartwright - played by the terrific Scottish actor Jack Lowden - is assigned to dig through the trash of an ultra-right-wing journalist for reasons that aren't explained.
As the grandson of an MI5 legend, River burns to do something important. And so along with his talented colleague Sid Baker - that's Olivia Cooke - he begins investigating the reporter on his own. This digging plunges Slough House into the middle of a huge story - the kidnapping of a wannabe comedian of Pakistani heritage by the Sons of Albion, a white nationalist group that plans to behead him on camera.
The slow horses get caught up in the scheming of MI5's icy second-in-command, Diana Taverner - played by a perfectly cast Kristin Scott Thomas - and by a posh, amoral, conservative MP who might remind some of Boris Johnson. If the kidnap victim gets killed, Taverner will seek to pin it on Lamb, who's her bitter enemy. Here, Lamb calls her to say that they have the intel she wanted on the right-wing reporter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SLOW HORSES")
GARY OLDMAN: (As Jackson Lamb) I got what you wanted.
KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS: (As Diana Taverner) All of it?
OLDMAN: (As Jackson Lamb) There's nothing in the rubbish, but we got his laptop files. Are you sending a courier?
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Diana Taverner) I'm not going to waste one of my grown-up spies. Send one of your donkeys.
OLDMAN: (As Jackson Lamb) OK, but I can't guarantee you'll get it (unintelligible).
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Diana Taverner) Send Sid Baker. She's the most capable.
OLDMAN: (As Jackson Lamb) And just to be clear, Diana, you owe me.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Diana Taverner) Whatever you say, Jackson.
POWERS: In moving from print to TV, one loses the witty inventiveness of Herron's prose. Yet director James Hawes and screenwriter Will Smith - no, not that one - have done a nifty job of recreating the "Slough House" universe. They preserve Herron's clever plotting and funny, stylized banter. If they spend a shade too much time with the bickering white nationalist dolts, that's OK. They understand that in setting up a new series - they've already filmed the second book, "Dead Lions" - you need to let scenes breathe.
This gives us time to get acquainted with other slow horses. We discover the transcended obnoxiousness of computer genius Roddy Ho - played by Christopher Chung - and feel the vulnerability of on-the-wagon Catherine Standish - that's Saskia Reeves - who's essentially Ms. Moneypenny fallen into disgrace. We get to watch the surprisingly competent Louisa Guy - played by Rosalind Eleazar - fall in love with a sweet, not-so-competent Min Harper, played by Dustin Demri-Burns. Although sometimes inept, these folks care whether they save the kidnapped young man.
For all his scuzziness, so does Lamb, a role that allows Oldman revel in a rude, liquor-stained riff on le Carre's austere Smiley, who he played earlier in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Oldman is so effortlessly good that I can see why Smith's script expands his role in the plot. You want him on screen though I wish the show had resisted the temptation to sentimentalize him a bit. Lamb's better if we don't think that beneath it all, he's a good guy.
Now, like all of the "Slough House" stories, "Slow Horses" is attuned to what's actually going on in British life - in this case, the subterranean connections between thuggish nationalists and ambitious Tory politicians. Here, rather than fulminate about, say, the decline of the British Empire, the show turns the character's folly and corruption into a dark comedy about a culture going off the rails. While the characters with any decency are derided for being slow horses, the fast ones are thoroughbreds of self-promotion who dine at the trough of power and whenever the manure hits the fan, race to cover their well-tailored backsides.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new series "Slow Horses" on Apple TV+. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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