In the years since the daffily self-assured Alias left the air, television spies have engaged in increasingly grim business. Assignments on Homeland rely on the real-world ramifications of terrorism and are carried out by agents who’ve sacrificed their lives to miserable service, gray suits and grayer rooms. The Americans, currently airing a superlative season on FX, is even less glamorous. Blame the suburban 1980s setting, Keri Russell’s fierce commitment to Mother Russia and how exhausting it looks to swap out wigs multiple times a day–it’s probably the most realistic depiction of espionage on TV.
On AMC’s The Night Manager, at last, the sheer fun of tradecraft is back. Based on John le Carré’s first post–Cold War novel, the six-episode miniseries (launching April 19) traverses a complicated world. But its most explosive moments stem from the interplay between a spook and an arms dealer.
Tom Hiddleston, a villain in Marvel movies like Thor and The Avengers, is the good guy here. Managing a hotel in Cairo during the 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak, his Jonathan falls for Sophie (Aure Atika), who warns him about “the worst man in the world,” a fellow who’s planning to supply weapons, including napalm, to be used against the Egyptian people. She quickly makes a violent exit from the series, but not before the two fall into bed together. “I want one of your many selves to sleep with me tonight,” she tells Jonathan. “You can choose which one.” The line is indefensible as anything but spy-genre pastiche–which is, conveniently, what The Night Manager does best.
The self Jonathan puts forward is bent on revenge, and he eventually finds his way there. Recruited by Angela, a British intelligence officer (Olivia Colman, exuding strength), he penetrates the inner circle of self-styled philanthropist and weapons broker Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) by appearing to thwart a staged kidnapping of Roper’s son near the family compound in telegenic Majorca, Spain.
Does it make sense that a man as canny as Roper would fall for Jonathan’s game? Aided by his paranoid consigliere Corky (a simmering Tom Hollander), Roper should have been more on the ball. But the show needs his self-regarding arrogance in order to work, and Laurie satisfyingly fleshes out a superbly detestable villain. Roper isn’t a supervillain like Bond’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld; he’s an indolent fellow who loves wealth more than people. He’d rather lounge by the pool in his parrot-colored robe than peddle artillery–but the latter finances the former, so there it is.
The Night Manager applies the pleasing fundamentals of pulp spycraft to the banal world of corporate evil. Its takes on the Arab Spring or Western power grabs in emerging economies are entirely surface-level, but going deeper is the sort of task Homeland takes care of. The gratifications here derive from the trappings of glamour–a lavish opening sequence, an overwrought score, the striking Elizabeth Debicki as a trophy girlfriend on the verge of shattering–and from Roper’s reassuring lack of imagination. Unlike many great screen villains, he has nothing sympathetic about him; he’s all boor.
The avaricious Roper has accumulated plenty of resources, but Jonathan, hardened by military service and service-industry service, is resourceful. “You’ll be in so deep, you’ll worry that you’ll never get out of it,” Angela warns as she indoctrinates him into her world. “There’s not a scrap of you that won’t get used. There’s not an hour that will go by that you won’t be scared.”
Indeed, the further Jonathan burrows into his subterfuge, the more his personality seems to evaporate. All the better to carry out his missions, or to carry a quintessential spy series without distracting from its delights–the wake left by a speedboat in the Mediterranean, custom-cut suits, the deadly sheen of a tense moment suspended in the air between two stars having the time of their lives.
The Night Manager airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. E.T. on AMC
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.