With the advent of peak TV, and its bidding wars for talent, came a rush of film legends to smaller screens. Within the last decade, performers at the level of Al Pacino, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Christopher Walken suddenly discovered that it wasn’t beneath their dignity to star in a regular old television series.
It may seem as if nearly everyone who matters had already made the move, but this week TV snares another big name: 72-year-old Jeff Bridges, a true member of the aristocracy of American acting. He has made a few guest appearances over the years, including with his father on “Sea Hunt” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show” 60 years ago. But “The Old Man,” a moody, deliberate, seven-episode thriller premiering Thursday on FX, is the first series he can call his own.
Bridges plays Dan Chase, a former CIA agent who got involved in bad business in Afghanistan during that country’s war with the Soviet Union and had to go underground; he is flushed out of hiding when the series begins, and we watch as he goes on the run and tries to figure out who is after him, so many years down the road.
“The Old Man” offers the reliable entertainment value of seeing a silver-haired professional bring his deadly skills to bear against younger opponents, and the four episodes available for review feature several long, vicious, hand-to-hand battles that will have you squirting with both dread and sympathy.
This is territory that has already been staked out by contemporaries of Bridges’s like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and, pre-eminently, Liam Neeson. But the series, based on a novel by Thomas Perry and developed for TV by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine (who collaborated on “Black Sails” and “Human Target”), has more on its mind than cheering while the old guy kicks some butt.
Chase is a Cold War true believer who went beyond the bounds of his assignment in Afghanistan, and there are elements of Graham Greene’s Vietnam-era quiet American in his character — the warrior whose naïve idealism and certainty (combined with a weakness for a local woman ) makes him dangerous. He also has an artless arrogance that can be charming right up until it turns frightening, a quality showcased in his accidental relationship with Zoe McDonald (Amy Brenneman), a lonely woman he encounters during his flight.
Bridges, the most natural and authentically human actor around, navigates the currents of Chase’s character with ease; he’s absolutely convincing at every moment, even when the writing gets a little too ornate and preachy, which it does with some regularity. And physically, he does a brilliant job of conveying Chase’s combination of lethality and frailty, a condition that is played more for poignancy than action-movie triumphalism.
(Filming of the show was temporarily shut down, reportedly after the first four episodes were completed, when Bridges received a diagnosis of lymphoma and then contracted Covid-19 during his cancer treatment.)
The Old Man really is an old man; the first thing he does in the series is get up in the middle of the night to urinate. And the show makes an intermittently interesting equation between the paranoia and uneasiness that characterizes Chase’s decades of hiding and the dementia that claimed his wife and that he fears will come for him. Living on the run and losing your faculties to old age both involve forgetting who you really are.
The seriousness of the show’s approach to Chase, and Bridges’s excellence in the role, are what set “The Old Man” apart, but it’s also (through Week 4) a well-above-average if unusually pensive and introspective spy thriller. Directed by Jon Watts, maker of the most recent “Spider-Man” films, and Greg Yaitanes and placed under the musical supervision of T Bone Burnett, the episodes have texture and an unforced urgency.
As a bonus there’s John Lithgow, who gives an expertly entertaining performance as Chase’s primary nemesis, Harold Harper, a former CIA colleague who is now an FBI honcho. He’s the smartest guy in every room, and in scene after scene Lithgow, without saying a word, makes sure we see the exact moment when Harper figures out the thing that no one else has cottoned on to yet. Also excellent is Brenneman, as a character whose actions may stretch plausibility but whose emotions and uncertainties ring true.
All you really need, though, is Bridges, and his preternatural ability to combine strength and delicacy, gruff strength and flashes of biting humor. (He can get significant comic mileage out of very few words — “Me too” to an overly enthusiastic landlord, “Yeah!” to a waiter offering a wine list at an uncomfortable moment.) Bill Heck, who plays Chase in flashbacks to the Afghanistan years, is fine, but he suffers from an impossible comparison: He’s not the 30-something Jeff Bridges.