“The Game” uses a familiar rulebook, which isn’t to say this BBC America period spy drama isn’t worth playing. Low-key to the point of sleepy, the three previewed chapters of the six-episode series pursue a cat-and-mouse battle of wits between British and Russian intelligence in 1972, with the Brits seeking to ferret out details on what they fear is a game-changing plot known only as Operation Glass. Alas, the story is far from transparent, dribbling out clues and dollops of backstory, with Tom Hughes as the haunted young agent at the forefront, and Brian Cox as his secretive boss.
In this setting, Hughes — featured in the Starz miniseries “Dancing on the Edge” — can’t help but evoke comparisons as a younger (and no doubt cheaper) version of Benedict Cumberbatch, using his seductive powers as part of his tradecraft bag of tricks. Yet he’s also plagued by an earlier attempt to pass secrets to the Soviets that cost Hughes his lover and resulted in his temporary incarceration, an event that circles back, not surprisingly, into this arcane scheme.
Hughes’ Joe Lambe is alerted to the threat by a shadowy Soviet mole, Arkady (Marcel Lures), who is vague about the details, except that it involves activating a number of sleeper agents within Britain, with no clear notion of how their actions intersect. In response, Cox’s spymaster — rather quaintly known even to his operatives only as Daddy — assembles a special team to thwart the plot, whatever it might be.
Capturing the Cold War’s perplexing nature, Arkady — whose caution prompts him to spoon out information — references his father’s service at Stalingrad, adding ruefully, “That was a war that made heroes; not this.”
Created by Toby Whithouse (“Being Human”), “The Game” is hardly the James Bond version of British espionage, even with the nicknames and nerdy sidekicks. But the show does capture an era when these agents could genuinely worry about a scenario where the Soviets might engage in a nuclear first strike, which certainly ups the ante beyond current leader Vladimir Putin’s recent border incursions.
There’s also more than a little office politics, with the officious Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter) eager to undermine Daddy’s authority, egged on by Waterhouse’s patrician mother (the wonderful Judy Parfitt).
Not all that much happens, but the episodes nip along just smartly enough to sustain interest as to what this jigsaw puzzle will look like once assembled, the disclaimer being that viewers will have good reason to be ticked off if the payoff doesn’t justify the commitment.
The Brits have always had a knack for brainy spy yarns — see PBS’ latest “Worricker” movies, premiering this week and starring Bill Nighy, as evidence — perhaps in part because they tend to center more on psychology than pyrotechnics. And while “The Game” doesn’t rival the best of them, in terms of meriting attention, it’s at least in the right ballpark.