The title of FX’s The Old Man doesn’t really tell you what kind of show it is. It could be a wacky multicamera sitcom about an ill-behaving senior citizen who gets kicked out of his retirement home and has to move in with his hipster grandson. It could be a whimsical dramedy about a retiree figuring out how to fill his days. Or it could be what it actually is: a thriller starring Jeff Bridges as a renegade former CIA operative who has to kill a lot of people when the fugitive identity he’s lived under for decades is discovered. Even the show’s poster image is relatively nondescript, with Bridges’ giant head floating behind the concerned body of co-star John Lithgow as his former handler. It tells you that The Old Man stars two revered, award-winning actors, and not much else.
But even if FX had opted to change the title from that of the Thomas Perry novel on which the show is based — maybe to The Dude Abides Murder? — The Old Man would still feel somewhat generic. It offers exactly what the poster promises, in two excellent performances from Bridges and Lithgow (plus strong supporting ones from Amy Brenneman, Alia Shawkat, and Gbenga Akinnagbe), and offers a bonus in some gripping close-quarters combat sequences. But the story itself feels like an afterthought, and the energy level tends to droop whenever Bridges is not getting his homicide on.
Bridges plays Dan Chase, who once upon a time was a hotshot agent working in Afghanistan in the Eighties. Then he betrayed both his chief asset and the Agency and disappeared, building a happy and lucrative life, alongside a wife and daughter, under an assumed name. When the series begins, he is a widower whose only remaining family appears to be his two Rottweilers, who seem adorably docile until their master’s life is threatened, at which point they become his cold-blooded, highly-skilled bodyguards. The dogs come in handy, as does Chase’s own rusty but formidable aptitude for violence, when the government catches up to him and dispatches an assassin to his lovely suburban home. Soon, he’s on the run from ex-colleague Harold Harper (Lithgow), now an assistant FBI director, and Harper’s protégé Angela Adams (Shawkat). He poses as the guest-house tenant of lonely divorcée Zoe McDonald (Brenneman) while trying to evade the deadly Julian Carson (Akinnagbe), whom Harper engages on the side because he is better off with his old colleague dead rather than captured.
This is a perfectly fine thriller setup. And the pragmatic, utterly ruthless Chase is a good showcase role for Bridges at the more taciturn end of his late-career range. (Think Hell or High Water more than True Grit.) The first two episodes are directed by Jon Watts, and the next two by Greg Yaitanes (Banshee, Quarry), and all are periodically elevated by bursts of violent combat that are remarkably staged and shot. Watts’ Spider-Man movies with Tom Holland do not feature memorable action, even by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s oddly lax standards in this area. But those set pieces tend to be huge in scale with lots of special effects, where these work precisely because of how intimate they are. Rather than battling robotic drones atop London Bridge or the Green Goblin on Liberty Island, Dan Chase is often wrestling on kitchen floors with hitmen in dark clothing, and Watts and Yaitanes both do impressive work making the septuagenarian, cancer-surviving Bridges seem like the man who would of course win each of these fights(*).
(*) In general, it’s a great-looking show, with vivid colors and beautiful compositions.
It’s when the knives and dog fangs aren’t flying that The Old Man starts to show the age of its component parts. As adapted from Perry’s book by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, the plot feels warmed-over, the twists — particularly the one the show clearly thinks will drop audience members’ jaws — telegraphed well in advance, the characters brought to life more by those fine actors than by the material they’re given. And the flashbacks to Chase’s earlier years in Afghanistan are extremely nap-inducing, despite featuring a good actor in Bill Heck (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) as the young Chase.
The caliber of the performers and performances is better able to elevate the material in the present day, particularly in scenes pairing Bridges and Brenneman. Their relationship starts out as something of a rehash of her dynamic with Robert De Niro in Heat, where she’s drawn to a charismatic stranger without realizing he’s a wanted man. But the actors’ chemistry is strong, and as the season moves along and Zoe begins to understand more about the situation she is trapped in, her role in things becomes more compelling than the cat-and-mouse games with Harper, or the ongoing threat of Carson.
Anytime you put this many great actors in one show, shoot it this well, and feature action this strong, you’re going to have something interesting. But just as Harold Harper still doesn’t quite understand why his old friend threw his whole career away to go rogue, it’s not hard to look at all the talent assembled for The Old Man and wish that the show lived up to its full potential.
The Old Man premieres June 16 on FX, with episodes releasing weekly and streaming the next day on Hulu. I’ve seen the first four of seven episodes.