Slow Horses

What’s The Show, JG? Slow Horses

What’s It All About? After screwing up a training mission, MI5 officer River Cartwright is kicked downstairs to the so-called Slow Horses of Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents. This is a humiliation where instead of pretending to be James Bond, he’s stuck with tedious paperwork overseen by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman!), his apparently-uncaring and uninterested boss. A British-Asian Muslim student is kidnapped by the Sons Of Albion – a right-wing fascist organisation – as a false-flag operation set up by Lamb’s boss, Diana Taverner (Kirsten Scott Thomas). MI5 have an inside man as part of the group but when one of the members goes rogue and executes the agent it’s a rush to find out where they’ve taken the student and rescue him before the Sons execute him. It’s down to the Slow Horses to come up with the answers as they go on the run to stop the fascist group and rescue the student.

Why Did You Give It A Go? The novel the series is based on, by Mick Herron, has a good reputation, so that’s a solid start, and really – how bad can a series boasting both Gary Oldman and Kirsten Scott Thomas be? Also the reviews have been very favourable and it’s been simply ages since there’s been a halfway decent TV thriller that was actually worth paying attention to (sorry, The Equalizer, that’s not you).

Is It Any Good? Yes. Yes it is. In fact, it’s great! Remember the show Spooks? Well, Slow Horses is basically that, but not quite with the top agents, and with Kirsten Scott Thomas playing the Harry role previously occupied by Peter Firth. They even have their own tech nerd, the appealingly unlikeable Roddy Ho, played with annoying intensity by Christopher Chung (who’s fantastic). Rogue agents, a mission gone awry, political stakes – the kidnapped student is the son of a Pakistani ambassador – and a hard-right fascist gang, all elements which have the potential to make for an explosive espionage thriller. And they do! There’s a huge sense of momentum to the series, and that helps a lot too. It’s incredibly addictive in that oh-stick-on-another-episode sort of way, and the plot moves like lightning. Yet it’s also clean and clearly written, so there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary hanging plot threads or things to get in the way of the story. It starts, it delivers six episodes of thrills, and it stops. That alone feels incredibly refreshing.

There’s plenty of time for slower moments, it’s not all-action-all-the-time, and a lot of the familiar tropes of espionage thrillers are in place here. There’s the boss whose apparently-foolproof plan goes awry. A late night meeting on a deserted bench, sharing information. Going on the run to escape oversight. An agent shot in the line of duty (kind of). All familiar beats, but all used in a way that really brings them to life. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything that qualifies as original here but then that’s not really the point. This is about using all the tools that a piece like this has to their very best advantage. They’re tropes of the genre, in other words, but even though they’re fairly obvious they also never feel like clichés.

At least part of that comes down to the performances. For the first couple of episodes it’s not entirely clear why Gary Oldman is in this – he’s great at playing the foul, uncaring Lamb but it’s not, you know, really a role that requires him. Then once things go south for Taverner’s operation and he needs to Sort Stuff Out it immediately becomes clear why he’s there. He simply inhabits the role with the sort of effortless ease you would expect from someone like Oldman, and the character is a repulsive delight. Even the sometimes-cheesy dialogue works coming from his mouth. “You really do care for them, don’t you?” asks Tarverner at the end of the aforementioned meeting on a deserted late-night bench. “They’re screw-ups,” replies Lamb, “but they’re my screw-ups.” Corny in the extreme? Absolutely, yet Oldman makes the whole thing work. Being opposite Thomas doesn’t exactly hurt either, and her role as an MI5 agent with balls of steel is one she completely inhabits too. She’s terrific, and such an asset to the series.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and indeed, this is an extremely well-cast show. Jack Lowden excels as the pretty-boy failure who nearly ended his career and only survived because his grandfather (a cameo from Jonathan Pryce, of all people) intervened. River is fairly straightforward as the “good guy” of the series but Lowden invests him with just the right amount frustration and derring-do to make the character work. His curiosity and his inability to just let things drop could, again, be a bit clichéd but he makes it work and is always a delight to watch. As the agent assigned to keep an eye on him, Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker is a charming presence and they two have real chemistry together. Which makes her getting shot at the end of the second episode a real shock.

And that’s another thing that Slow Horses is really good at. It’s able to deploy shocks and dramatic twists without them feeling cheap or like a lazy way of ratcheting up the tension. In particular, it’s fantastically good at cliffhangers, which is what drives that “put on another one!” feeling. Sid getting shot felt genuinely dangerous and unnerving. The third episode ends with one of the Sons of Albion going rogue, grabbing and axe and swinging it… cue credits! Did he kill the student? Someone else? Go for the old axe-misses-by-a-few-centimeters saw? Arrgh! Put the next one on and let’s find out! The show really knows how to derive a compelling hook from its cliffhangers and how to use them to really ratchet up the tension. The scenes of slow, tense investigation dovetail fantastically into the frenetic drive towards the end credits and the structure of the show is one of its greatest successes.

How Many Of These Did You Watch? Well, I’ve seen about a bajillion espionage and thriller series’, but in this case all six episodes. And it’s worth re-emphasising how refreshing that episode run is. Six episodes, no pointless plot diversions or side stories, and the right amount of material for the actual number of episodes commissioned. Fan. Tastic.

Would You Recommend It? Oh very, very much so. Everything in this show just works and it’s just incredibly compelling. There’s a whole sub-plot running about a right-wing journalist, previously respected but now rather toxic, who just can’t leave well enough alone and who might (or might not) have information about the Sons Of Albion. The whole plotline investigating the character – Robert Hobden played with slimy, sleazy presence perfectly by Paul Hilton – is really rather wonderful. He’s never quite the major player he so clearly aches to be, he’s really more of an inconvenience, but he still just keeps getting in the way and so never quite becomes an irrelevancy. He’s a thorn in the flesh that feels real. He’s also got links to a repellant yah-yah Tory-type who apparently has designs on Number 10, though this isn’t much explored and presumably is ripe for further development in future seasons.

The other thing that makes this show work is just how convincing even the smallest of characters are. As the abducted British-Asian student, Antonio Aakeel doesn’t get a lot to do beyond looking absolutely shit-scared that he’s about to be beheaded by a bunch of fascist nutters, yet he excels in the role and is worthy of praise. All the remaining characters in Slough House, the other agents who all get stuck there for one reason or another, feel like real people and have stories and lives going on which sometimes are relevant to proceedings and sometimes not – but the “sometimes not” just makes them feel like actual people, with concerns that don’t just serve a plot function. Even the reasons they get stuck there are pleasingly different. River’s there because he screwed up and, fair enough, that’s simple to understand. But Roddy is there not because he isn’t good at his job – he is – but simply because he’s unbearably annoying. Dustin Demri-Burns’s Min Harper is there because he left a disc with top-secret information on it on a train. They all have different reasons, but they all feel right.

And that’s the thing. Every time there’s a call that Slow Horses needs to make, it makes the right one. Every. Time. It’s all incredibly convincing. The casting is fantastic. The story is great. It’s completely gripping. It’s covering a hot-button topic but not in a stupid, crass way (the latter seasons of Spooks could be especially guilty of this), but in one that simply informs the story and gets on with the business of telling it. It’s well produced – not obviously high-budget beyond the cast, but it doesn’t really need to be. The direction is across-the-board fantastic and really knows how to wring tension from every single shot. This is just a straight top-to-bottom great series. A second season has already been announced. I cannot wait.

Scores On The Doors? 9/10

Star Wars – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ewan McGregor returns to the role of Obi-Wan for his the first small-screen outing in the role. But can the series live up to the character’s oversized reputation?

What’s the Show, JG? Obi-Wan Kenobi

What’s It All About? Well depending on how generous you’re feeling, it’s either about redeeming pretty much the lone good things from the Star Wars prequels (i.e. Ewan McGregor), or it’s yet another cynical ploy to wring yet more cash / subscriptions out of Star Wars fans by pandering to them with a big star returning to their old role but on the small screen. Either way, Obi-Wan is hiding out on Tatooine nominally watching over Luke Skywalker as he grows up. After Princess Leia – a precocious child with surprising parkour skillz – is abducted, Senator Jimmy Smits Bail Organa asks for Kenobi’s help to get her back. Meanwhile, there’s an Inquisitor on Obi-Wan’s tale, Third Sister Reva Sevander, who has set up the abduction and has her own agenda. After surviving the slaughter of the younglings at the hand of Anakin, she’s out for revenge and wants to kill Luke. The abduction of Leia is part of her absurdly daft and baroque plan to draw Kenobi out, but anyway, we get six episodes of escaping-from-planets, a few lightsaber battles along the way, and eventually Reva gets redemption, Kenobi finally accepts Anakin has gone for good and has subsumed into Darth Vader, and everything ends more or less where it began. Except for all those dead bodies, but oh well, omelettes, eggs, etc

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The Book Of Boba Fett

After more than 40 years since his first appearance, Boba Fett gets his own show. But does it work, or will it be a Fett worse than death?

What’s the Show? The Book Of Boba Fett

What’s It All About, JG? Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), bounty hunter extrordinare (it says here) escapes his ignominious Return Of The Jedi fate of being swallowed by a toothy hole, and has a series of mildly diverting escapades until The Mandalorian shows up for no readily apparent reason and makes everything better. Or, if you want to be sightly more specific, Fett survives his encounter with the Sarlacc and learns wisdom and weaponry from a tribe of Tusken Raiders. In trying to help them, he gets them all killed so instead he pisses off to Jabba’s old palace and tries to become a crime lord / Daimyo. This goes… less that well, though he manages to recruit Fennec Shand (a criminally wasted Ming-Na Wen) to his cause,and a gang of modified teenagers on Vespa’s (for some fucking reason), then ends up defending the town of Mos Espa from spice traders so we can have a big, drawn-out shooting match in the final episode. Meanwhile, The Mandalorian does a bit of Mandalorian-ing, is reunited with Grogu / Baby Yoda, and pisses off for hopefully more engaging adventures elsewhere.

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The Silent Sea

Korean sc-fi, an abandoned lunar research base and a lurking secret in the dark… a recipe for success?

What’s The Show? The Silent Sea

What’s It All About, JG? In the near future the Earth is running out of water, turning into a desert for… reasons. On an abandoned research station on the moon that’s been untouched for five years there’s the possibility of a solution, lunar water, which can apparently self-replicate. That means a dangerous, secret mission to the deserted base to try and retrieve the samples of water for a Korean space exploration force. But on arriving, they discover things aren’t as straightforward as a near-lethal rescue mission might otherwise suggest! For there is also something lurking on the base, and the water itself might not turn out to be quite as benign as was hoped… Can the crew get a sample safely back to Earth and get rescued? How many will survive? And just who is Luna and what does she represent?

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Doctor Who – Eve Of The Daleks

What’s The Show? The Doctor Who New Year’s special, Eve Of The Daleks.

What’s It All About, JG? The Doctor, Yaz and Dan land on New Year’s Eve in a self-storage depot while the Doctor attempts to purge the remaining Flux energy from the TARDIS. Turns out doing that causes a time loop, which the Daleks pop into in order to extract revenge for the Doctor wiping out their war fleet with the Flux. Also there are Sarah (a brilliant Aisling Bea) and oddball Nick (Adjani Salmon), who’s storing the possessions of ex-girlfriends there and using it as an excuse to see Sarah, on whom he has an unrequited crush. Every time the Executioner Daleks – with the really cool Gatling gun weapons – kill them, time resets and the loop becomes just that little bit shorter, so its up to the Doctor to figure out how they can defeat the Daleks, keep everyone alive, and escape the loop before time runs out.

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Dr Brain (Dr. 브레인)

How goes Apple TV’s first foray into Korean-language television? Remarkably well!

What’s The Show? Dr Brain

What’s It All About, JG? Lee Sun-kyun stars as Dr Koh Se-won, the titular brain doctor, a brilliant scientist who had discovered a way to “brain synch” his mind with the recently deceased. This allows him to explore their memories for clues to what happened to them when they died. His family are killed in a mysterious accident, so it’s down to the good Doctor to figure out what’s going on, and also to try and keep his grip on reality as it becomes increasingly difficult for him to distinguish reality from the experiences he’s had in other people’s minds. In the end it turns out his son has been abducted by his terminally ill and wheelchair-bound father, who believe he can transfer his brain into the young boy and thus become, essentially, immortal. Like you do. Can Se-won stop his deranged father and rescue his son?

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The Beatles, Get Back

What’s The… Movie? TV Show? Documentary? Er, Thing: Get Back

What’s It All About, JG? Back in the dim and distant days of *checks notes* 2020? Really? That feels ages ago. Anyway, back then, Peter Jackson started to assemble footage from the apparently-near-infinite amount of film shot for what was originally Get Back, but ultimately became Let It Be. Let It Be as a movie had one rare distinction – it managed to make arguably the most important band of all time seem boring. The rooftop concert is amazing, that goes without saying, but the rest is tedious drag of frazzled band members, myth repeated so endlessly it’s become fact, and a gloomy, depressing and doom-laden atmosphere.

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Squid Game

A bloody and violent Korean TV show takes the world by storm. But can it live up to the hype?

What’s The Show? Squid Game.

What’s It All About, JG? Somewhere on an island off the coast of Korea, contestants who are in various desperate situations due to debt and poverty are driven to compete in lethal games for the amusement of a bunch of rich assholes. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Oh alright, you want more?

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Babylon Berlin

A series set in Berlin, Germany in the late 1920’s – that can only end well, right?

What’s The Show? Babylon Berlin

What’s It All About, JG? The series is set in Berlin during the dying days of the Weimer Republic, where Inspector Gereon Rath has arrived, fresh-faced and slightly innocent, from Colonge who is sent on assignment. He’s there to try and take apart an extortion ring – it very much doesn’t just so happens to be his father that’s being extorted – aided and abetted by Charlotte Ritter, one of the police clerks trying to make her own way past the inherent sexism of the era in a time when women were finally starting to make progress in the workplace.

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Loki

A trickster god, multipe timelines and a Disney budget – what could possibly go wrong?

Not what I’d call low-key

What’s The Show? Loki

What’s It All About, JG? After (well, during) the events of Endgame, the trickster God Loki manages to escape with the Tesseract and finds himself in an alternate timeline. There he is taken in by the Time Variance Agency, an organisation that exists outside of normal space and time who help to regulate the “one sacred timeline” by ensuring one version of history is always running as it is “meant to”. Since this version of Loki is a time variant, everyone’s favourite troublemaker has a choice – either face being pruned form existence as a variant or assist in fixing the timeline in order to prevent an even bigger threat. That means we get six episodes of various differing amounts of things, during which we learn that the TVA is a bit of a fraud and the Time-Keepers who are meant to run the place are entirely fictional. The whole thing ends with the reveal of He Who Remains, the real power behind the throne and gratuitous set-up for the upcoming slate of Main Range movies. Oh, and the inevitable post-credits thing which makes it clear Loki’s getting a second season.

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