Slow Horses Review: This Spy Thriller Hitches Its Wagon To An Insufferable Performance

The new Apple TV+ series "Slow Horses" has an interesting premise, if not too much else, going for it. The show follows a group of MI5 rejects, agents who have ended up in situations that their American counterparts might call "FUBAR." After mucking up training exercises, getting people killed, or otherwise threatening the order and efficiency of the UK's counter-intelligence agency, these folks are sent to a dumping ground called Slough House. Here, they're meant to toil away in irrelevancy under the glaring eye of their frumpy, grumpy boss, Lamb (Gary Oldman).

Gary Oldman's character in "Slow Horses" is meant to be "brilliant but irascible." I know that only because it's the language used in the official series synopsis, because it certainly isn't telegraphed in the series. On screen, he's obnoxious and off-putting, without a whiff of likeability or even intrigue about him. Lamb grumbles tepid insults at his team, and since he's played by an actor as prestigious as Oldman, these moments are shot as if they're intended to be series focal points. 

Instead, they fall flat, and with them, the whole series deflates.

Oldman's character is unbearable

"Slow Horses" seems to have hitched its wagon to Oldman, but that decision is a bit like if "Community" had made Chevy Chase's character the series lead rather than a mostly ignorable supporting role. Granted, Lamb isn't particularly bigoted, but his presence is that of an unbearable boss who responds to every crisis with uncreative, borderline verbally abusive quips rather than helpful input. Clearly, this wasn't the series plan. Everything about it seems to hinge on our begrudging faith in Lamb as an unlikely leader for the ragtag crew. "Slow Horses" is based on the first book in a popular series by Mick Herron, and that version of Lamb is, if not exactly endearing, at least interesting.

This isn't the only element the Apple TV+ adaptation loses in translation. Herron's book series is widely regarded as funny, shot through with dark humor and witticisms that make its dysfunctional workplace setting feel a bit less like purgatory. On screen, there isn't a joke as far as the eye can see. Lamb farts a couple of times and talks about his bodily functions, and that's pretty much what passes for funny. It's hard to say how much of the blame goes to the actor, and how much lands on "Veep" writer Will Smith's clunky script, but either way, the effect is the same: Oldman's supposedly funny and brilliant antihero seems neither funny nor brilliant.

As directed by "Black Mirror" and "Doctor Who" filmmaker James Hawes, "Slow Horses" at least looks good. It rises above cheap espionage thriller territory thanks to a sleek, dark look (everything seems to happen at night) that works overtime to elevate the material. For better and worse, the series also doesn't stay put in Slough House for long. The group is thrust into action almost immediately when a suspicious kidnapping plot and a series of attacks put them in danger.

"Slow Horses" may have benefited from a longer season, with a more procedural start that would better establish the doldrums of Slough House. But by leaping into the deep end early on, the show at least ensures it's never boring.

A bright spot

The supporting cast of "Slow Horses" includes some bright spots. The always-excellent Olivia Cooke makes the most of a small role here, as an agent with a mysterious mission who pals around with Jack Lowden's River. River, the newest member of Slough House, is ostensibly the show's protagonist, but no Slough House member is shaded in well enough by the script to make their point of view seem integral. The supporting cast, which includes Christopher Chung, Rosalind Eleazar, and Antonio Aakeel, does well despite playing equally underdeveloped roles.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the series' standout. As elegant and intense deputy director Diana, she pulls strings behind the scenes and often convenes with Lamb. The pair's scenes together are a painfully clear reminder that whoever acts the most doesn't necessarily act the best. Oldman grunts and farts his way through the insufferable role, putting on a show that seems destined to elicit little response beyond an eye roll. Scott Thomas, meanwhile, is perfectly contained and subtle, yet watching Diana play with the human chess pieces on the Slough House board is infinitely more interesting than anything involving her co-star.

"Slow Horses" has a decent enough storyline, but by tying it so closely to a character who's a dud on screen, its bottom-of-the-barrel agents premise can only go so far. If it's neither as funny, nor as enjoyable, nor as deep as its source material, what is it? The answer seems to be a vaguely interesting thriller bogged down by baffling character choices and a poor sense of focus.

"Slow Horses" debuts on Apple TV+ on April 1, 2022.