The show around Oldman doesn’t quite live up to the standards of his performance, but it’s not too far off — “Slow Horses” is a very satisfying celebration and dispatch of the John le Carré novels that clearly inspired him. It’s a complicated conspiracy thriller crossed with an office comedy, and it sprinkles slightly grungy realism with off-kilter, absurdist touches that fail only occasionally. It also showcases a great cast – Oldman is joined by the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas as the steel head of MI5, Jonathan Pryce as a retired spymaster, and Jack Lowden as a young cop who recently arrived at Slough House, and they’re all fantastic.
If there’s a problem with the show, it’s the reverse of what’s sometimes called Netflix bloat. “Slow Horses” shows that six episodes—a standard length for British crime dramas—isn’t necessarily enough time to adapt an intricately plotted, fully-featured book. The show is more faithful to Herron’s novel than you might expect, with the result that the twists and turns in the story can seem random and difficult to follow.
The show kicks off with a breathless action scene now set to London Stansted Airport — a nine-minute scene of earplugs, sprinting, screaming, tackling and misbehavior on the escalator. (The unspoken joke in the book is that there is hardly anything more stimulating or so banal cinematic; several chase sequences have been added throughout the series, a bit of audience indulgence that reads like a failure of imagination.)
The fallout from that scene is what brings Lowdens River Cartwright, who is brash, idealistic and actually very capable, to Slough House, where he is surrounded by other disgraced cops who are more or less resigned to being sidelined. He is annoyed at his demotion, which he believes was undeserved, and at Lamb’s humiliation; when an order to go through a journalist’s trash appears to be related to a hostage situation, he obeys Lamb’s orders and investigates, eventually pulling the rest of the Slough House crew with him.
Directed by James Hawes and largely written by Will Smith, who worked on the Armando Iannucci political satires “Veep” and “The Thick of It”, it’s an enjoyable, acidic yet tranquil ride through the nighttime streets and dull days of London. It focuses as much on pub hookups, office creepy sessions and disjointed eviction conversations as it is on commercial art, and any dialogue threatens to turn into a creative insult or a bitter joke. (A favorite: “Educating yourself is like trying to explain Norway to a dog.”)