All these dogs bite harder than they bark.
Jeff Bridges is currently 72 years old. John Lithgow is currently 76.
For a combined 148 years, these giants have roamed the earth; for most of that, they have been cinema icons. Their combined roles and accolades are too numerous to list. But each man, on his own, is the owner of a personal fan base worthy of any individual franchise.
The world’s collective memory gets a little shorter every year, so I wouldn’t expect a pair like this to have the same cultural impact they once did. But it’s that very peculiarity that, for me at least, provides the payoff for this surprisingly simple, wonderfully arresting series.
The story concerns Dan Chase (Bridges), an elderly man living a quiet life in upstate New York. This pastoral existence includes an elegant home, a pair of Rottweilers, and a slightly enlarged prostate. He starts awake at night both from that and from mourning what appears to be the memory of his wife.
He finds solace in the occasional strained but loving phone call with his estranged daughter. They seem mutually protective, and though their conversations are earnest, they’re tinged with sadness and longing.
One night, we find out why. An intruder breaks into Chase’s home, earning the owner’s and his pets’ wrath.
I’ll let you guess who wins.
I’m just as surprised as you are, officer.
Chase is more than a reclusive codger with an exhausting pill regimen and a staggering dog food bill. He’s also a former CIA agent with unconventional skills who’s been living off the grid since the 1990s and has been found. He’s in danger, his dogs are in trouble, and his daughter is in danger.
It seems someone has not forgotten about Dan Chase.
That someone is FBI Assistant Director Harold Harper (Lithgow). He and Chase have a history, and it’s related to whatever is going on. The men pursuing Chase are Harper’s, but for some reason, the latter is doing his former colleague a solid and delivering a “heads up” via telephone.
Go back off the grid and I can make this go away. Cut off all remaining ties, including your daughter. Say no and I’ll have to hunt you down.
Both of them were involved in something decades ago that changed many lives. And not necessarily for the better. Chase predictably declines his one chance to summarily make it all right, so the waves of opposition continue to come. Now the problem isn’t just outwitting his pursuit but finding a way to get to his (as yet unseen) daughter before Harper can.
For undisclosed reasons, Harper would prefer Chase not to be captured, but his own career is at stake if it doesn’t happen. This is further complicated by his personal assistant Angela (Alia Shawkat), who begins questioning the ethics behind their actions. He’s also required to deal with an increasingly ambitious underling in Raymond Waters (EJ Bonilla), who immediately suspects Harper may be burning his covert candle at both ends.
The Old Man is based on the well-regarded novel of the same name by Thomas Perry, wherein an eponymous Man who is also Old experiences the exact things that I’ve just described. I have not read the book, but if it’s anything like the series, I might have to add it to my reading list. That said, the central conflict in this story is (seemingly) pretty simple.
One guy is hunting down another guy.
In 1965, that would be all the premise necessary. The characters would all be square-jawed white men in razor-sharp suits with monotone voices and gobs of pomade. There would be a jazzy theme song, lots of conversations while driving, and enough cigarettes to keep an 80’s hair metal band happy until at least 1990.
Each week our fugitive might find himself in a new town. He’d help old women across the street, save kittens from trees, and patiently set broken bones at high school sporting events. All in service of reinforcing his humanity to us and his pursuers.
In fact they did make that show, it was literally called The Fugitive, and it was pretty good.
The Old Man places a modern spin on the premise in that innocence and guilt aren’t really even on the table. Certain things happened long ago that were neither good nor bad. They simply needed to happen. Now a penance must be paid, and it’s neither fair nor unfair.
It simply needs to happen.
It’s just a matter of which guy ends up writing the check; this is a personal clash between aging warriors and their equally flabby egos. But what wouldn’t have happened on The Fugitive is that the critical mass of this pursuit pulls in unwitting or unwilling third parties, distributing the fallout in calamitous ways.
There’s no weekly act of atonement for an already virtuous man. This is an ongoing tragedy about people whose best effort often yields the worst results for the least deserving. It suggests that nothing we do occurs in a vacuum and that when you choose to get down in the mud, sometimes you never get the mud off.
It’s this inconvenient Duality of Reality that makes the whole show work. The scenes where Chase and Harper match wits are well done and appropriately tense but also feel a little perfunctory. Neither actor is challenged by exchanging elderly bluster over the telephone, and the animosity between their characters seems less than complete.
The action scenes are sparse but startlingly brutal. And not just by virtue of seeing a surprisingly capable septuagenarian pitted against heavily muscled, random government henchmen. Even in retirement, Chase is a resourceful agent, but Bridges’ exertion onscreen is palpable (incidentally, he was treated for cancer during the production). You believe this man is capable of the things he does, even as they begin to wear him down.
And lord, those dogs! They make up for the years anytime Chase gets into a scrape, and they are trained to finish what their master may or may not physically have started.
The show’s aesthetic is one of solitude, as though it’s happening in the mercurial twilight of a mind unable to completely believe what it’s seeing. There’s little to no music, and scenes are allowed to develop slowly, the way things happen when you’re tired. In place of pithy combat dialogue or a distracting soundtrack are patient long shots and punctuating point-of-view moments that make you feel like part of the action, occasionally to the point that borders on horror.
Despite this, it’s the human moments that help The Old Man exceed the sum of its parts. This is primarily thanks to some next-level writing by creators Jonathan E. Steinberg (Jericho, Human Target) and Robert Levine, who have penned each episode so far.
All these ingredients are meaningless until the actors put a product onscreen, and here is where the rubber truly meets the road. I can’t get into the exact relationships, but try to imagine the most extraordinary scenes you’ve ever watched, where two actors are clearly forcing the other to up their game.
Amy Brenneman goes toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges in some scenes where I feel certain one or the other needed a few hours to decompress afterward. Alia Shawkat tests her mettle with Lithgow in displays of range I never knew she had. Leem Lubany might deliver the best performance while speaking nary a word of English.
I don’t mean to imply that the characters they play are without flaws, only that they’re made to be part of events not of their own design and must adapt to survive, just like the men who’ve brought them to this.
The Old Man isn’t perfect, but it’s polished and profound in all the most important ways. I’m not sure if the narrative threads all make sense, as most of them are left for Season 2 to address. I’m invested, though, and can’t recommend enough that you join Dan Chase on this journey…
..to wherever his rocky road to redemption finally leads.
The Old Man Season 1 is currently streaming on FX, Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+. Season 2 has been greenlit.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."