“The Old Man,” premiering Thursday on FX, gives up its secrets slowly — more slowly than I will, should you care to turn to the sports page. For a good while, we might be watching the story of a small-town Vermont widower playing with his dogs, talking with or exchanging phone messages with a daughter, remote and unseen, worrying about the possibility of cognitive decline. His dead wife visits him in a dream. Old man, indeed. But suddenly, there are tin cans strung together to make an alarm, a gun and a fight. Eventually, we learn that Dan Chase (Jeff Bridges) is a man with a past and that the whole point of this story is that the past, buried for decades, is about to catch up with him — to the past’s peril.
Chase will leave Vermont, which brings him to the door of Zoe McDonald (Amy Brenneman), a divorced woman from whom he rents a room and who will be in this story for a while longer, possibly for keeps. (Hitchcock went down this road frequently.) This is clear from the official trailer, if we’re talking spoilers, which also promises international intrigue. It is clear too that Chase is some sort of master agent, who will not be pulled back into wherever he has got out from. (“Any more you send at me,” he announces, “I’m sending back in bags; anyone you send at my kid, I’m sending back in pieces.”) Monitoring his flight are Harold Harper (an admirably contained John Lithgow), an assistant FBI director with whom he has history (the series might plausibly be titled “The Old Men”); Lithgow’s assistant, agent Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat — “as you’ve never seen her,” I want to say) who seems a force for good; and agent Raymond Waters (EJ Bonilla), who might be a force for less good.
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Developed by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine from, but not limited to, the book by Thomas Perry, the series shifts some of the novel’s ancient history from Libya to Afghanistan, back when it was a Russian occupation. (Both Bridges and Lithgow have well-cast younger counterparts, Bill Heck and Christopher Redman, respectively.)
But such particulars, although impressively realized and a driver of the present-day plot, are also less important than whatever is happening to Chase, or whatever Chase is making happen, at the moment. Although there are at least a couple of delicious twists, what promises to be a complicated plot is necessary above all to create an ebb and flow of danger, to provide the hero something to kick against.
I can’t say that every narrative point, even in the four episodes available to review, made perfect sense, but on the other hand, nothing created an impediment to the smooth flow of the action. This is a car that drives so well you don’t mind the potholes.
Indeed, the elements here are in and of themselves not exactly unfamiliar, and “The Old Man” succeeds by concentrating on character and character relationships — this is a thriller with a richer than usual emotional foundation — and making sure that everything is done to perfection ; the series is as finely turned as a Japanese vase.
With its opening two episodes directed by Jon Watts (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”), “The Old Man” succeeds through elegant understatement, from the cinematography to the acting, not doing too much, not telling you how to feel or even always whom to trust. The soundtrack is limited to occasional mournful strings; the action sequences are unencumbered by music and are, for the genre, brutally realistically and realistically brutal, and Chase does not walk away unscathed.
The leisurely pace of the series’ bucolic opening is maintained as the adventure unfolds; scenes develop slowly, allowing you to get to know the characters and helping to make sense of the relationships. And yet there is almost nothing extraneous. The dialogue says just what it needs to without ever feeling skimpy; and when a character occasionally does go off on a florid tangent, or the production feels self-consciously arty — as when Joel Grey’s former senior spook tells Harper of having read his New York Times obituary as he paints a picture in an otherwise empty mansion room , a scene right out of Orson Welles — its aim, at least, is high.
“There’s a villain in every story — nobody ever sees themselves as playing that role,” Zoe will say, speaking of her busted marriage, though we are supposed to transfer this thought to Chase, whose actions are not necessarily consonant with what most of us would consider everyday, ethical behavior. (Whether they are moral is another question.) We understand from his own words that he has done dark things, but Bridges is so obviously the hero that the moral world reforms itself around him, shaped to his needs and desires.
The performances are all impeccable, from the main players to the well-furnished minor ones (Grey in what amounts to a cameo, and when we get a glimpse of Harper’s wife, the great Jessica Harper).
But it’s Bridges’ show. When the story leaves him for too long, you itch for his return. His authority is undimmed by time; if anything, it glows brighter. He’s an actor who would have succeeded in any era of filmmaking — he’s lived through a few, for that matter — a movie star with real chops, comfortable in art films and popular entertainments alike, leading man handsome still and entirely plausible as the action hero into which circumstances convert him.
Chase is superheroic only in the sense that he has a gift for getting the best of a situation (of course, he is chronically underestimated by his foes), but he has his normal human side. He cooks. He has bad dreams. And he loves his dogs.
‘The Old Man’
When: 7 and 8:20 pm Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)