It's a spy drama in the spirit of John le Carré novels. That should be enough to let you know whether you are in or not on this show from the outset, but what I would suggest is this: If you've made an immediate judgment on the show, maybe step back for a moment, because the show is more spirited than you may assume.
I mentioned John le Carré - this is absolutely one of those spy dramas with covert, quiet missions involving stealing files from unsuspecting marks in cafes, stealthy missions shadowing targets, and the like. But where this show approaches the genre is by coming from it in an entirely different direction than we're used to. This is a show that focuses on the losers in the espionage business. The deadweight spy agencies want to be rid of.
The MI5 agents we follow in Slow Horses work at Slough House - it is an outpost where nothing of consequence happens. The agents are all complete failures - if you are an agent who flames out in spectacular fashion, you get sent to Slough House until the boredom of working there prompts you to quit.
[There's a great story in the second episode with one of the agents recounting his own journey to Slough House - he was reviewing classified files on the train and accidentally left it behind. It's heartbreaking hearing him talk about breaking down crying after he found out the file had been found... discovering this from a story on the news. This led to him soon divorcing his wife who had little sympathy for his trauma.]
As Slow Horses opens, it is with a high octane action sequence in which agent River Cartwright... what a fantastic name... is chasing down a suspected terrorism target at the airport. He fails twice during the operation, leading to the explosive death of a train full of people. Thankfully, as we later learn, it was just a training operation. But it is enough for Cartwright to be dumped at Slough House where he is left working under Jackson Lamb, a gruff boss who is so thoroughly dishevelled that even Steve Bannon would be telling him that he looks unkempt. Lamb is deeply committed to his staff not doing anything, getting visibly angry if there's even the suggestion of his staff doing after-hours work.
While that sounds like the premise for a zany spy sitcom, the show is mostly grounded in the drama of the situation that arises when Cartwright finds a crossover between his work and a hostage taken in a high-profile act of terrorism. Because this is filmed entertainment, Cartwright obviously defies his bosses wishes and starts investigating. He is aided by another younger agent Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), which brings a generational element into the series. Many viewers will connect with the idea of frustrated younger staff feeling hemmed in professionally by an unmoveable boss who hampers good work being done.
Like most Apple TV+ shows, the production quality of the show is great - this absolutely matches the visual quality of the biggest mid-range spy dramas we've seen on the big screen. All six episodes are directed by journeyman director James Hawes and written by The Thick of It writer and actor Will Smith (No, not that Will Smith). While this is ostensibly a drama, the show isn't afraid to occasionally be funny.
Its lush visuals are matched by a wonderful cast. Dunkirk's Jack Lowden leads the series, with the aforementioned Olivia Cooke supporting. Playing boss Jackson Lamb is actor Gary Oldman, leaning into his past connection to the genre with the memorable turn taken in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Jonathan Pryce and Kristen Scott Thomas also appear in pivotal roles.
There's a great lineage of purposeful, steady-handed spy dramas from the UK. You can very easily track the lineage of series like The Carpetbaggers through to more recent dramas like Spooks. Slow Horses is a worthy addition to this canon. But what really makes the show distinctive is how blatantly writer Smith has incorporated a Thick Of It-style character into what is an otherwise very staid genre with Oldman very much serving as this show's Malcolm Tucker. There are repeated moments in the show where you'll laugh out-loud in delight.
This is six episodes of a tightly-paced, smart and funny thriller. It's still early in the year, but fully expect to hear people declaring this one of the years best by the end of 2022.
Slow Horses is streaming now on Apple TV+. New episodes are released weekly. There are six episodes in total.