Catch ‘Slow Horses’ – the Best Spy Thriller in Years

Gary Oldman is just one of the reasons to watch the Apple TV+ gem ‘Slow Horses,’ the best of the genre since 'The Night Manager,' while HBO’s ‘How to Survive a Pandemic’ will induce ‘happy tears’ about the COVID vaccine

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Gary Oldman, Rosalind Eleazar and Dustin Demri-Burns in “Slow Horses,” on Apple TV+.
Gary Oldman, Rosalind Eleazar and Dustin Demri-Burns in “Slow Horses,” on Apple TV+.Credit: Jack English / Apple TV+
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to write about Will Smith in this week’s column – and then one of the first credits to pop up in the brilliant new Apple TV+ spy series “Slow Horses” was this: “Written by Will Smith.”

Obviously, “Will Smith” is quite a common name in the United States and Britain, as many William Smiths can now confirm after being bombarded with hate/praise tweets since last Sunday’s Academy Awards. But for me it’s the latest sign that the lines between reality and fiction in television are now so blurry, Robin Thicke’s thinking of making a comeback.

Consider these recent events: Thieves stole hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of jewelry and items from the sets of two Netflix shows about master thieves – “Lupin” and “The Crown.”

Last week, meanwhile, a writer stepped down from her duties at soapy medical mainstay “Grey’s Anatomy” after stories circulated that supposed autobiographical plots may have been fabricated. Apparently fellow writers first grew suspicious when she talked of being slapped on-stage at a prestigious awards ceremony.

So, blurred lines aside, let me start by backslapping Will Smith the writer – and his fellow scribes on the British series – for doing something very, very rare: creating a show that is every bit as good as the novel upon which it’s based. (I believe the last time this happened was for “Jesus of Nazareth.”)

And when I tell you that author Mick Herron’s delightfully droll spy novels have drawn comparison to the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and John le Carré – although, in truth, every contemporary British novelist who has ever written a book about spies has been compared to David Cornwell – that is praise indeed.

The greatest thing about the adaptation is that it has retained the Britishness of the source material – right down to the lamb bhunas. There are no attempts to “atlanticize” the action in this gripping six-parter: no introduction of American agents; no watering down of the loathsome “Little Englander” racism that propels the story forward; no effort to dilute the trademark English sarcasm that drips from every page.

In short, the creators knew they had a gem on their hands – a franchise (the eighth book is published next month) with a wealth of wonderful characters and compelling plotlines – and have proved a far safer pair of hands than anyone appearing for the English men’s cricket team in recent months.

The changes here are relatively minor – a villain added here; a spook subtracted there; an ending heightened to slightly implausible effect – and build on the novel’s strengths. In truth, the biggest fear I had going in was the casting of Gary Oldman in the lead role of Jackson Lamb.

The 64-year-old Londoner is obviously a wonderful actor when he’s not smartphoning it in for Hollywood dross such as 2014’s “RoboCop” remake. Physically, though, he doesn’t match the “fat bastard” protagonist frequently described in Herron’s novels, and in the series looks more like Elvis Costello having a very bad hair day than how one might imagine the on-page character.

Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden as Jackson Lamb and River Cartwright in “Slow Horses.”Credit: Jack English / Apple TV+

Still, that is nowhere near as egregious as pixie-sized Tom Cruise playing man mountain Jack Reacher in two movies, though, and Oldman immediately captures something far more important about the character than his girth: his cantankerousness and condescension for his fellow man/woman.

I think I laughed more watching “Slow Horses” than at any other thriller in living memory – other than “The Woman in the Window,” obviously, but this time all of the laughs were richly earned.

Most are spat from Lamb’s sneering mouth (“Bringing you up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog”), but the reason the show is so rewarding is because there are so many other great characters on screen besides Lamb.

These include Jack “Dunkirk” Lowden as River Cartwright, an earnest, Boy Scout-type who looks like the lost member of Mumford & Sons. He’s determined to resurrect his intelligence career after being consigned to Slough House following an almighty mess-up we witness in a tense eight-minute opener.

The show generally uses a less polite term to explain how all eight of the Slough House operatives ended up at this nondescript office in central London – one that may as well be in Slough (a crappy town west of Heathrow Airport, whose most famous claim to television fame is being where Ricky Gervais’ “Office” series was set) given its metaphorical distance from the Regent’s Park HQ from which they were all cast out for their sins.

This is the story’s beauty: turning a bunch of losers – the “Slow Horses” of the title – into unlikely heroes, each with potentially a part to play in saving the day.

The show is genuinely sensational whenever the spooks occupy center stage. All of them – including Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana “Lady Di” Taverner, head of ops at Regent’s Park, and every bit as icy as you might expect a KST character to be – are a source of constant joy.

Freddie Fox, Chris Reilly and Kristin Scott Thomas in “Slow Horses,” now streaming on Apple TV+.Credit: Jack English / Apple TV+

By contrast, every minute spent in the company of a quartet of English nationalists who kidnap a British-Asian student, with the plan of decapitating him live on YouTube, feels like a minute too much. Other than that, my only quibble with the show is its “Strange Game” theme tune sung by Mick Jagger – which sounds more like a Flight of the Conchords pastiche of the Rolling Stones front man than anything else.

For me, this is the best espionage series since the BBC adapted le Carré’s “The Night Manager” back in 2016. It feels fresh, partly thanks to the sharp dialogue that stops the series ever taking itself too seriously, and partly thanks to the best on-screen representation of London I’ve seen in a long time. This is a London better-known by cabdrivers than tourists – and how wonderful to watch a series set in London that eschews a single establishing shot of the Shard or St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The season ends with a preview of the already-shot second season, based on “Dead Lions,” and I can’t wait. George Smiley face, as I believe all the kids say.

‘How to Survive a Pandemic’ (HBO)

Reasons to be cheerful: part II. There have been plenty of documentaries about the coronavirus in the past 12 months, but David France’s “How to Survive a Pandemic” is the only one that might get you shedding “happy tears” – to borrow a phrase from Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the co-developers of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and interviewed here.

France previously gave us the “How to Survive a Plague” documentary about the AIDS crisis. Here, he is granted impressive behind-the-scenes access to capture the development of the four major vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) and also some of the key players in the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, which managed to help produce the game-changing vaccines in less than 12 months – though this is a story told more by execs in suits rather than people in lab coats.

Our moral anchor is Science magazine journalist Jon Cohen, who asks tough questions of the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci; a leading figure at AstraZeneca, about its somewhat-botched handling of its clinical trial results; and, most depressingly, a Trump supporter sporting a “Fuck Dr. Fauci” hat – suggesting that the White House missed a trick by not branding one of the vaccines “TRUMP” when they were released in America.

One particularly memorable interview is with Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the Operation Warp Speed head who tells Cohen his one wish for the next pandemic: “Please, next pandemic virus, please do not come during an election year.”

If another excellent COVID documentary, Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave,” was a noble salute to the frontline health workers operating under incredible strain to keep people alive before vaccines became available, “How to Survive…” also showcases some less visible heroes – like Pittsburgh Rev. Paul Abernathy, who served as a passionate vaccine advocate, encouraging his Black congregants to get the shot. I particularly loved the moment where he finds a Bible quote, beginning “Honor the physician,” to persuade vaccine skeptics to get in line for the shot. Holy work, indeed.

The ongoing tragedy of the pandemic is also laid bare and beautifully articulated by World Health Organization head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who calls out the “deficit of solidarity and sharing” when it came to vaccine equity.

Residents of Pittsburgh waiting in line for a COVID vaccine last year, as seen in "How to Survive a Pandemic." Credit: Yes Docu

As someone who is currently half-man, half-Pfizer vaccine, I can only admit to my part in that inequity. Watching “How to Survive...” won’t assuage any of that First World guilt, but it will serve as a vital time capsule to hopefully help us all handle the next pandemic a little better.

The first two episodes of “Slow Horses” are out now on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday. “How to Survive a Pandemic” is on Hot 8 and Yes Docu at 10 P.M. on Sunday, and thereafter on Hot and Yes VOD, and Sting TV.

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