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I’m Pleased I didn’t forget to Cancel Apple TV+ After Seeing ‘Slow Horses’

So far, it’s a Pulpy Spy Drama done right.

Confession: I’d never read anything by John LeCarré until seeing the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s a fantastic film that made me want to read the Karla trilogy and watch the two superb Alec Guinness versions right away. After binge-watching the first two episodes of Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, I can’t think of a greater praise than to announce that I’ll be bulk-buying the book series from which it was adapted in the near future.

Slow Horses is based on Mick Herron’s Slough House novels, which follow a gang of British agents who are caught in administrative hell. MI5 operatives who have made high-profile errors but know far too much to be sacked are sent to the dismal Slough House.

They are assigned innocuous busywork that is too degrading for actual spies to do while being humiliated and demeaned by division chief Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman).

River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), a former great spy, is thrown into this realm after making a major misstep in the field. He’s given tasks like finding a shady journalist’s trash can and working as a messenger between offices there. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Cartwright’s entrance sets in motion a big case for the rejects to deal with, one that has already begun by the end of the second episode.

Slow Horses provides a sense of pulpy fun in addition to the enjoyment of a well-made modern thriller. A scene in the second episode, which I won’t reveal, has the feel of a Chuck Jones cartoon rather than a gritty espionage thriller. It also helps that the show isn’t attempting to turn everyone into a two-dimensional cut-out, as is often the case when prestige television attempts to make spy-fi.

The show was founded by Will Smith, a British comedian, actor, and writer who, as far as we know, has never smacked Chris Rock on stage. Given that Smith has written for Avenue 5, Veep, and The Thick of It, the dialogue sparkles. It’s also open-minded about its politics, providing some subtlety on the perks and drawbacks of living in a surveillance state.

The fact that this is Gary Oldman’s first starring role in a TV series has already gotten a lot of attention. However, Apple spent a lot of money to bring in Kristin Scott-Thomas, a multiple award winner, and Jonathan Pryce, who plays a former spymaster who hasn’t lost any of his imperial majesty.

Also worth mentioning are Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker, a far more capable spy who, despite squatting in Slough House, is allowed to conduct real espionage work, and Saskia Reeves’ Standish, Lamb’s long-suffering aide.

I admit that I enjoy watching George Smiley, both past and present, play a cracked-mirror version of the same character. Oldman has never looked grander than as a man in ruins, and Lamb is caught in the dirty whiskey and tobacco-stained late 1970s. Lamb was once a fantastic agent whose fall from glory was similarly staggering, but the series isn’t dragging it out in mystery-box fashion.

I’m recommending this to you for two reasons. For starters, I thought it was cool, and I consider it part of my job to share cool items. But also because I’d neglected to cancel my TV+ membership, which was the main reason I started Slow Horses in the first place. When I saw the email in my inbox, I felt irritated that I’d wasted yet another £4.99 on something I’d never used. (Now that my kids are old enough to sit through an entire movie in one sitting, I keep intending to utilize that money to subscribe to Disney+.) Aside from Ted Lasso, TV+ remains, in my opinion, the home of primarily middle-of-the-road programming that aims to do well on both coasts and much of the middle.

It didn’t help that The Morning Show made me feel uneasy, and I can’t image myself watching Jason Momoa go around a forest in See. It’s hard to blame Apple for not merely throwing money at its TV division and flooding its service with mediocre originals. However, paying for the privilege of not wanting to watch what was on offer has always made me feel like a chump for paying for the right of not wanting to watch what was on offer. Despite this, I decided to take a chance and watch Severance after watching Slow Horses.

I’m only a few episodes in, and it’s not the kind of show you can or should binge over a few bloody nights, but it’s entertaining. It’s an out-of-the-box look at memory, personality, and business life that resists easy categorization. (You can also read our interview with the inventor, Dan Erickson!)

If I were to come up with a grand theory about all of this (which I’m not sure I do), it would be that TV+ needs to get weirder. Yes, it has the financial means to acquire as many prestige-TV programs as it desires, but we already have a plethora of worthy, though occasionally dull, shows (we’re looking at you, WeCrashed!). I still haven’t seen one of the two (two!) Tom Hanks movies Apple saved from the ignominy of a COVID-era theatre release. Shows like Severance and Slow Horses, on the other hand, are the televisual counterpart of a luxury dirty burger, with the former being a highbrow examination of something and the latter being the televisual equivalent of a luxury dirty burger.

Neither of which is something you’d expect HBO to buy, even in its post-Netflix worry heyday. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this in the future, and I’ll feel a little less bitter at having to pay for TV+.

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