You might expect a stellar performance from Jeff Bridges as former CIA operative Dan Chase in his new series, “The Old Man.” And that’s exactly what you’ll get.
He’s among those aging actors — see Gary Oldman in Apple TV+’s “Slow Horses” — who has just continued to grow more weathered and natural over the decades, to the point where you never feel him performing. He’s rough-hewn, not “rough-hewn,” his thinking is always there in his eyes like a picture-in-picture feature, and his moments of cagey inscrutability are masterful. When he plays fight or flight, as he does often in “The Old Man” once Chase is forced out of retirement by an assassin, it’s electric.
Despite having had to pause filming in order to treat his lymphoma, Bridges brings a looming physicality to the show, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX and Friday on Hulu. Chase has been restfully living out his days — and, as the show drolly makes clear, urinating many times a night as the titular character — but when he needs to go head to head with the various killers on his trail, he’s still got the wit and brawn, even if the results involve aches and groans. Bridges makes Chase into a dignified action hero whose true dominance comes from always being a step or three ahead of his pursuers, whose decades of experience are a plus. He also benefits from his two intensely trained rottweilers, who are valuable assets to him and, being very good dogs indeed, to the show.
Bridges is matched on the seven-episode drama by a strong cast, notably John Lithgow, Alia Shawkat, and Amy Brenneman, each of whom shines. Lithgow is an FBI bigwig named Harold Harper who is either Chase’s longtime enemy or supporter — or a bit of both — and he keeps the cards close to his chest as the nature of their history gradually emerges. He and Bridges aren’t acting partners in the four episodes made available for review — Harper is in D.C., Chase is busy being chased — so much as they serve as the two magnetic poles of the narrative. Harper appears to be the bad guy who’s upsetting Chase’s peace, but the truth is, of course, probably a lot muddier, particularly as we see Chase kill off a few people without a hint of remorse. His self-protective instincts are overwhelming.
Brenneman is extraordinary as a bitter divorcee dragged on the run with Chase. I’m not sure her scene-to-scene motivations are nailed down in the script, but Brenneman makes it work anyhow. Is she a love interest? Is she a victim? None of it is clear, which makes her performance that much more interesting. And Shawkat is particularly memorable as a shrewd FBI agent and Harper’s protégé. She’s always a treat to watch. Add in a Joel Grey cameo and you’ve got plenty of chops to admire.
Given all the talent, you might also expect a stellar plot from “The Old Man,” as our weary but hale veteran runs from his past.
Alas, you will get a sometimes frustrating story line that’s both complicated and, in some ways, simplistic at the same time. Based on the 2017 novel by Thomas Perry, it aims for the tense international thrills of “Homeland,” but it gets bogged down in the very slow emergence of the backstory that drives the present-tense action. There are surprising plot twists when Chase is on the road, and those are satisfying. But the history of Chase’s experiences during the 1980s as an operative in Afghanistan seems thin and, in flashbacks (with Bill Heck as a young Chase), a bit facile. The more you learn about the events of the 1980s, the more questions you may have.
The actors, though, make it all worthwhile. In their hands, it’s a contemplative and always watchable take on the past, its ever-presence, and the moral reckonings it requires.
THE OLD MAN
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, Amy Brenneman, Alia Shawkat, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Bill Heck
On: FX, Hulu. Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX; Friday on Hulu
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.