Gary Oldman's Spy Series Offers a Twist in the War on Terror

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Slow Horses Gary Oldman Jack Lowden
Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden in “Slow Horses" (Apple TV+)

Fresh off its stunning Best Picture Oscar for "CODA," Apple TV+ is set to launch "Slow Horses," a new UK espionage series starring legendary actor Gary Oldman, who himself won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour." The first two episodes stream on Friday, April 1, 2022, with the rest of the six episodes to premiere one at a time each Friday for the rest of the month.

Oldman's character, Jackson Lamb, is a far slobbier hero than Churchill, which is actually saying something when you're comparing him to a prime minister who liked to spend the day in his pajamas and left a trail of cigar ash wherever he went. You could compare Lamb to George Smiley, the character Oldman played in the 2011 Cold War classic film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," but the bookish Smiley is practically a runway model when compared to the sodden mess that is Jackson Lamb.

Lamb is the MI5 officer in charge of a unit housed in an off-site office called "Slough House." Rather than fire its screwups, the British intelligence service sends them off to do insanely boring busywork in hopes that they'll eventually quit.

There's a lot of great news here. "Slow Horses" is based on a series of novels by British author Mick Herron, and there's plenty of source material for future seasons. In fact, Apple was so high on this property that it committed to two seasons out of the box and filmed them back-to-back. That means we can look forward to a series based on Herron's second Slough House novel, "Dead Lions."

In "Slow Horses," there are actually a couple of extremely talented agents who've been banished to Slough House. River Cartwright (Jack Lowden, "Dunkirk") is the grandson of an MI5 legend, and he was banished after an error during an anti-terror training exercise. But was it his error, or did a fellow trainee set him up with bad intel? As the show begins, no one knows why Sidonie Baker (Olivia Cooke, star of the upcoming HBO series "House of the Dragon") has been sent to Slough House, and she certainly doesn't seem to belong with the losers.

When a mysterious video appears online from an undisclosed location in the UK, the country's initial reaction is that jihadists have kidnapped a British citizen, especially after the kidnappers annouce plans to chop off his head. Several hours later, everyone learns that the British citizen is actually of Pakistani origin and the terrorists are members of a far-right group who outrageously claim they're going to do to a Muslim what the Muslims have been doing to "us."

It's a British spy story, so you know there's a lot more drama and confusion here than just a straight-ahead search for some homegrown terrorists. There's a conspiracy that includes members of Her Majesty's government and the highest levels of the intelligence community. Lamb's screw-ups are forced to take the lead in an attempt to save the young man and root out the bad actors.

"Slow Horses" was written by Will Smith, who's the talented scribe from "Veep" and "The Thick of It" and not the actor who has been in the news lately. All of season one was directed by James Hawes, best known for his work on the television series "Black Mirror," "Doctor Who," "The Alienist," "Snowpiercer" and "Penny Dreadful."

Mick Jagger sings the show's theme song, "Strange Game." He wrote the tune with Academy Award-nominated film composer Daniel Pemberton ("Hear My Voice," "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse," "The Trial Of The Chicago 7"). "Strange Game" doesn't sound much like the Rolling Stones and even has echoes of the doomy Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave.

"Slow Horses" delivers the action, but most of the show is about the mind games that intelligence services play with each other and the enemies they pursue. It's a slow burn but one of the best spy series to debut in the current flood of streaming content. The fact that there's another season ready to go makes it easy to commit to "Slow Horses."

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