Well, points for trying, anyway. British Cold War spy series The Game (2015) takes a stab at filling a potentially lucrative niche: an ongoing, episodic TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Indeed, its visual style seems positively lifted from Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of that venerable le Carré novel; combine the look with impeccable acting, lush production values and period design, and an engaging plot, and the show almost succeeds at realizing its vision. Almost.
Set in 1971, The Game begins when Russian defector Arkady (Marcel Iunes) clues MI-5 into a dastardly Soviet plot called Operation Glass, which, while shrouded in mystery, appears to be a major KGB operation against the British. Tasked to investigate Arkady’s material is the Counterintelligence section: Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter), the shifty, angling fop in charge of the section; his shrewd deputy Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton); inscrutable, unpredictable field man Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes); Sarah’s shaggy tech genius husband Alan (Jonathan Aris); a crafty inspector on loan from Special Branch, Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley); and Wendy Straw (Chloe Pirrie), a meek, bookish administrator on her first assignment. Overseeing the crew is “Daddy” (Bryan Cox), the old-hand head of the service. Together the team starts peeling away at Arkady’s story, finding a new layer of treachery at every turn.
The Game is a classy, very well produced serial, and it’s got most of the tools to be a satisfying spy puzzler. With its “Circusesque” cast of characters, 1970s ambience, and copious plot reversals, it has all the surface characteristics to succeed. But it’s missing one very key ingredient: originality. All of its moves—from its story elements to its audio-visual style—come right out of the spy fiction handbook, and it doesn’t have the fresh thematic depth or contemporary relevance to put a new spin on things. Betrayal, institutional rot, the spy’s dilemmas of identity…it plays in the right sandbox, but doesn’t build significantly on the legacy of the shows that precede it. The Karla trilogy, The Sandbaggers, MI-5, even The Hour, to a degree, have done it before and better.
The acting is superb from everyone involved, fortunately. Hughes is perhaps too young-looking for the jaded attitude the script requires of him, and his role is something of a hole in the middle. The rest of the characters, meanwhile, are pressed from an over-familiar mold, but a few—Ritter’s complicated Bobby Waterhouse, Dooley’s likable Jim Fenchurch, a spirited Rachael Stirling in a supporting role—won me over. Even so, the dialogue does dump a few too many genre cliches into their mouths.
None of this is to say it isn’t worth watching, and indeed viewers not as steeped in the genre may find it a perfectly enjoyable mystery. I would watch a second season in a heartbeat, despite my reservations. But when a series wears its influences on its sleeve this boldly, it better hope it’s got the moxy to pull it off. The Game makes a very respectable effort at it, but falls just short.