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Acting, black humor drive ‘Slow Horses’

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

This is how you do a solid British intelligence thriller. Get some of the most seasoned British actors (Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jonathan Pryce), add in a few really good younger British actors (Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Aakeel), provide them all with unusual characters and a tense story line laced with black humor, and get Mick Jagger to write and perform the excellent opening theme song.

Apple TV+’s “Slow Horses,” adapted from the book by Mick Herron, is a taut and entertaining new series that takes its cues from the likes of John le Carré. It has action, tense kidnapping scenes, a politically resonant and timely subtext, and a compellingly sour lead character — Oldman’s MI5 agent Jackson Lamb — who is as cynical and weary as he is brilliant. At moments, the story gets a little tangled, but ultimately, by the end of six episodes, it holds up.


Oldman is extraordinary, not surprisingly. His Lamb is a slovenly guy who always seems to have a glass of brown liquor nearby. He farts freely, his hair is greasy, and the script, by Will Smith (the British one), provides him with plenty of amusingly nasty commentary. He has no darns to give. He is in charge of an MI5 office of agents who’ve all fallen into disgrace for various reasons, and he shames them endlessly as he assigns them useless tasks. In “Slow Horses,” which is what MI5-ers call Lamb’s office since the building is called Slough House, Lamb’s agents actually stumble into something real, when they look into the kidnapping of a young English man of Pakistani descent.

Lamb’s team includes newcomer River Cartwright, played by Lowden as a new agent who refuses to be sidelined. He, along with the other screw-ups including a possible romantic interest played by Cooke, mobilize to do real work, and it’s easy to root for them and hope they come out of it as heroes. They come up against Scott Thomas’s MI5 boss, who is fierce and manipulative and a great challenge for Lamb. Watching Oldman and Scott Thomas together is a treat, as their characters try to out-maneuver each other. And their edgy dance will continue; the show has already been renewed for a second season.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.