The Old Man is one of the success stories of series year 2022 in the US: a highly regarded and highly regarded thriller series in which a living film legend stars in his first major television role.
The very fact that we can use the word “alive” in this case is worth mentioning, because it seemed like lead actor Jeff Bridges would never be able to finish the series. Bridges (72) hung on the brink of death while the recordings were far from being completed. Four episodes were filmed when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, but that was not all: while he was undergoing chemotherapy, a corona infection was also added. Bridges was in intensive care for five weeks. Cancer seemed nothing compared to corona, he later said during interviews.
Production was severely delayed, but despite all the setbacks (the corona crisis caused all kinds of other production headaches), the The Old Man finished, with seven episodes instead of the planned ten. And in the first two hours of the season it also seems as if we are dealing with a real TV classic: intriguing, smart and above all packed with acting to feast on.
Bridges plays Dan Chase, a former CIA agent who has been living a quiet life for thirty years, far from danger. He has a gray beard, clattering joints and a raucous voice that sometimes makes him almost unintelligible. This old man lacks the inner peace of Bridges’ most famous character: The Dude in the Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski. Also understandable, because as is so often the case in the espionage genre, the past always haunts you, even many years later.
Peace is disturbed when a person invades his home. Chase shoots the intruder dead and flees with his two dogs. There seems to be a connection to his time in Afghanistan, the country where he stayed when the country was at war with the Soviet Union. While he must find out exactly what is going on, he must ensure that his daughter stays safe. A former colleague, now employed by the FBI, must track down Chase. This man is played by another acting cannon: 76-year-old John Lithgow (Winston Churchill in The Crownmemorable serial killer in Dexter). The growling retiree Chase can still fight quite a bit. Towards the end of the first episode, he finds himself in a brutal one-on-one battle with a much younger opponent.
You can almost feel the bones breaking as the realistic combat moves through stages: first inside a car, then outside. Strands of hair are pulled from skulls and painful hold-ups are performed. This old man has another killer instinct, as it turns out. However, the character does not become an older action hero in the Stallone or Schwarzenegger category: The Old Man sprinkles only sporadically with the action scenes.
More important are the long dialogues and monologues that the characters speak. These are of a high level in the first episodes, although they are done just too often by phone (possibly a corona measure to protect the old actors as much as possible).
Showrunner Jonathan E. Steinberg also seems aware of the fact that women are often an afterthought in this type of series and knows how to avoid being used only as ‘wife of’ or ‘daughter of’. The woman who is dragged into Chase’s misery, played by Amy Brenneman, declares that she is not there to play a simple supporting role. “I want to be more than just a complication in your story,” she says. As a young FBI agent, Alia Shawkat also gets enough to chew on. She sometimes even steals the show in scenes with Lithgow.
But after a flying start, the series unfortunately loses more and more power, although it remains entertaining enough to keep watching. This is partly due to the flashbacks to the Afghanistan period of the main character. It is necessary to provide crucial background information, but the actor who has to fill in the younger version of Bridges lacks the necessary charisma. After a few episodes you get the idea that the writers have lost their gun and fall more into the clichés of these kinds of stories. And those who expect a fully completed story will also be disappointed: a second season is coming.
Still, it feels good to see Bridges at work. Even if the scenario loses quality, he still makes something of it. For the actor himself, the past period feels like a bizarre dream. He is happy that he can start with a new season, he tells the New York Times: “I was in survival mode. And now I’m back working with the same actors and crew. It felt like a long weekend. It wasn’t quite a nightmare either: there are wonderful things that you only discover in such times.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 28, 2022