The Old Man
The first episode of The Old Man is gripping stuff, the high point being a protracted, undiluted fight to the death between Jeff Bridges’ ex-CIA guy Dan Chase and (one of) the man tasked to bring him in. I thought – hoped – even given the presence of a devoted daughter on the other end of the phone, this might be promising us six streamlined episodes of a loner on the run, against the odds as the net tightens ever more remorselessly on him. What we get is appreciably less so, and the appreciably less so also consciously sets up a second season, making it even more party to the kind of trad TV thriller dynamics the presence of movie guy Bridges might have been expected to forestall.
Don’t get me wrong, what we have here is entertaining. Jeff, his dentures firmly in place, is reining in the mumble mouth, as much as he is capable, even as his beard is holding forth every which way. John Lithgow, preserving the benefit of all his own teeth, is even better as Chase’s former boss Harold Harper, and it’s gratifying that the promise of these two pairing together on screen pays off in the last episode.
It goes without saying that Alia Shawkat holds her own as the daughter – Angela Adams, amongst other names – playing a dangerous game in the “family” profession while preserving dad’s secret. Indeed, this plot element becomes more interesting as the season continues, since Dan’s gets enmired as soon as he decides to entangle himself with the perma-unsympathetic, difficult-to-warm-to Amy Brenneman as Zoe (I’m unsure if it’s the roles she chooses – I didn’t follow her most famous TV ones – or just her).
So there’s that. And then there are the flashbacks. Bill Heck looks like he might be a younger version of Dan Chase, but he has none of Jeff’s charisma. There’s no reason to have these sequences other than to fill out the plot; it certainly isn’t because you’re going to become engrossed in the earlier timeframe. Trying to parse moral imperatives in the Soviet-Afghan War, most of all having Dan believe he’s doing the right thing, quickly reaches a does-not-compute level (he’s frickin’ CIA. Is he naïve? Or is this TV land, where the agency actually has decent people of any stature working for it?)
This is the Hollywood drip drip, then. We know the CIA sucks, right? But there are some good eggs in it – the main trio here – so the water must be murky at worst, in that case. I can see this taking a tiresomely quasi-Homeland course in future seasons, as Dan must confront whatever it was his wife Belour’s allegiances were. Meanwhile Angela/Emily/Parwana gets to know her actual dad.
Ultimately, then, I felt a little disappointed by the series. It’s polished – Jon Watts successfully breaks free from being labelled an MCU journeyman with the first two episodes – but it has nothing different to say or do that would make it stand out within its genre. Even Joel Gray’s arch-manipulator has a discernible point of view and genuine affection for his “sons”. No one here is a psychopath, rather seeing their jobs of killing with impunity as just that. Dan managed to bury his past for long enough to be a caring, loving father, able to bottle up all that bloodshed somehow. The assassins sent out to take him down are similarly “three-dimensional”.
This is the problem when a show has the vital extra time to allow the motivational holes to become discernible. It doesn’t matter – well, perhaps it does, but you get my drift – in a 110-minute thriller, because the point is the ride. If you ease down a gear, as The Old Man does, you’re quickly faced with insurmountable, uncomfortable questions, and if you aren’t careful, you end up looking that much shallower than the vacuous thrill ride you’ve audibly scorned.