By Nina Heyn — Your Culture Scout
For a cerebrally inclined viewer, spy shows have advantages over regular crime series. There is less gore (all those chopped-up bodies and morgue scenes get tiresome after a while), and there are more smart ideas. In celebration of the second season of one of the best spy shows ever made—the UK production of Slow Horses (an Apple TV+ original)—below is a small selection of non-U.S. TV shows, available on various streaming platforms.
SLOW HORSES (UK, 2022–)
Slow Horses is an adaptation of the novels by Mick Herron, a British writer who seems to be the literary heir of the late John le Carré. Herron wrote about a dozen novels that feature a fictional but colorful unit of MI5 (the British domestic intelligence service). The unit is contemptuously dubbed “Slow Horses” because it is a parking place for operatives who have washed out but who, for various reasons, cannot be simply fired. The Slow Horses agents indeed turn out to be inept sometimes, but quite often they prove more resourceful and dedicated than their colleagues from the regular service. The TV adaptation (the second season is just premiering and the third one has just started shooting) stars the British A-lister Gary Oldman (Oscar winner for The Darkest Hour) as Jackson Lamb, the Slow Horses unit boss. Lamb is an operative trained in survival during the Cold War, whose old-school spycraft outclasses the flashy methods of modern technocrats. His frenemy is played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, who channels perfectly the character of Diana Taverner, the icy queen of the regular services and Lamb’s superior. Diana’s only goal in life is career advancement, but she will occasionally try to either kill the Slow Horses or use them—whatever is more expeditious. Also occasionally, either the regular MI5 operatives or the Slow Horses try to save the world (or at least the UK). The rest of their time is devoted to ruthless infighting. Herron’s books are brilliant, and the show successfully does them justice. The storytelling—smart, fast, and funny—is characterized by its lack of grandstanding and a healthy disillusionment with politics that is missing from most on-screen spy tales. Slow Horses is the show of the year, as far as I am concerned.
THE IPCRESS FILE (UK, 2022)
This show considerably updates the classic 1962 spy novel by English master of the genre Len Deighton and the 1965 movie with Michael Caine. The original film adaptation spawned four sequels based on other Deighton novels and also starring Caine; all the books and their film versions were to some extent a more realistic response to the fantasy spy-world of the James Bond movies. In The IPCRESS File novel, the complicated plot revolves around Soviets kidnapping and brainwashing British nuclear scientists, and is told in first person by an unnamed narrator. In the film and now in the show, the narrator acquires the name “Harry Palmer.” Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) leads this moody, mid-century drama as Palmer, while his very capable co-spies are Lucy Boynton (Bohemian Rhapsody, Murder on the Orient Express) and Tom Hollander (The Night Manager, Birdbox). The plot is full of twists, and the production design evokes the best of the 1960s London mod look. James Watkins (Black Mirror) directs the show.
THE GAME (UK, 2014–2015)
This unfortunately short-lived British show stars Tom Hughes as Joe Lambe, an MI5 agent during the Cold War era. After learning from a KGB defector of a Soviet threat to Britain, he has to uncover the deadly plot while making visits to Berlin, split into different Allied zones and soon to be cut in half by the Berlin wall going up. Lambe’s spymaster is played by Brian Cox, before his Succession fame.
SPY CITY (Germany/UK, 2020)
A German/UK co-production, this spy story features a British agent played by Dominic Cooper (who can now be seen as Prince Charles in Season 5 of The Crown). Cooper portrays agent Fielding Scott, who works at the British mission in post-war Berlin, shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Scott has to ferret out a mole in the British intelligence.
THE BUREAU/original title LE BUREAU DES LÉGENDES (France, 2015–2020, 5 seasons)
We already recommended this show a few years back as one of the smartest spy yarns on TV. That praise has not tarnished with subsequent seasons. Other than Slow Horses, this is still one of the most accomplished long-running tales about the dirty and dangerous world of shadows. Its value is enhanced by being told from the French point of view, since the genre otherwise is dominated either by U.S. spy stories (often dumbed down to car chases and gun waving) or by the more sophisticated but sometimes predictable British shows. The action in each of the five seasons is set in politically “hot” zones that include Iran, Syria, Algeria, Egypt, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.