Cold-War thriller ‘The Game’ at the top of its spy game

Tom Hughes is a spy in 1970s London in BBC America’s drama “The Game.”
Tom Hughes is a spy in 1970s London in BBC America’s drama “The Game.”
(Des Willie / BBC America)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Sleek, stylish and superbly performed, BBC America’s Cold War drama “The Game” offers more to look at than think about, but then there’s something about espionage that almost always calls for a little eye candy. The six-part series premieres Wednesday.

Here the seductive super-spy is Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), whose British schoolboy beauty belies a ruthless nature and broken heart. He has, we are led to believe in early moments, been willing to sacrifice Queen and country for love, but the Russians killed his lover before he got the chance.

Now, having been reclaimed by British intelligence, Joe is part of a small team investigating a possible Soviet plot known as Operation Glass. The time is 1972, superpowers are gridlocked and the only reasonable end to the Cold War appears to be a nuclear one. Operation Glass, Joe has been told by a Soviet informant, will mark the beginning of the end.

It’s an excellent position on television’s newly refurbished historical timeline for a British spy thriller, embracing, like London’s Tate, marvels of the Old World and the modern. In deference to Mr. Le Carre and his peers, Joe answers to a leader who is played to rumbling wise perfection by Brian Cox and known only as Daddy.


Nipping at Daddy’s heels is Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter), an anxious terrier of a man who sees himself as Daddy’s replacement. What was once known as a “confirmed bachelor,” Bobby is Evelyn Waugh Brit, down to the consciously bumbling public school cadences and the overbearing mother.

But the modern world cometh, even to MI5. Young Wendy (Chloe Pirrie) has the secretly ambitious mien of “Mad Men’s” early Peggy Olson. More important, Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton) is clearly the second in command with her husband, Alan (“Sherlock’s” Jonathan Aris), offering the series some levity and a lot of heart. A technical genius, Alan is admittedly timid for a spy, as well as socially inept; their marriage adds dimension to what could easily seem a simple cast of characters.

Aided by a Special Branch policeman (Shaun Dooley), whose main purpose seems to be overcoming his own suspicions to acknowledge how important MI5 really is, team members wiretap and peer through binoculars, use written codes and chalk markings, tail targets and attempt to make sense of last words when they arrive too late.

It’s all a far cry from the satellite-gathered and cellphone-shared intelligence of “Homeland” but still very much the same. The fate of the world is at stake, but also the souls of the spies themselves. Joe needs to atone, and one of his team may be a mole.

Created by Toby Whithouse (“Being Human”), “The Game” is nothing we haven’t seen before a hundred times, but it takes its corners neatly, offers moments of surprising intimacy (the scenes between Bobby and Wendy, and Sarah and Alan are particularly poignant) and moves quickly enough to avoid too many troubling questions.

In this era of global terrorism, YouTube beheadings and drone warfare, the Cold War can look quaint. “The Game” does not attempt to preach or even edify, but it’s good to be reminded that all threats are real and terrifying until they are defused or proved otherwise.


‘The Game’

Where: BBC America

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)