When we first see a gruff Jeff Bridges in FX’s The Old Man, where he plays former CIA operative Dan Chase now in hiding, he isn’t fighting off incoming enemies or trying to lose a tail. No, he is alone in his bedroom in the late hours when almost everything is subsumed in darkness — that is, save for a bathroom light and the red illumination of a digital clock on his bedside table that marks the number of times the restless Chase gets up through the night. It plays out as the opposite of a conventional spy thriller, stripping away any of the action spectacle to ground itself in the sad and lonely life of its central character. In one of his many trips to the bathroom, we see that water has begun to overflow onto the floor from a running sink. Kneeling there is either a hazy vision or a repressed memory of Chase’s wife, who utters a single phrase: “I see you.” He then wakes up, shaken by this event. Yet there is no one left for him to turn to for support, leaving him to question his own declining mental state.

This marks the beginning of a show that is often as conflicted as its central figure, grasping at being more character-driven while also dipping into expected action fare. It does this with recurrent fight sequences that, while competently directed and staged, are nowhere near as interesting as the more deliberate moments built around the gravitas of Bridges. The veteran actor makes even the simplest of scenes engaging, such as when we see Chase taking care of his two dogs or going through the rhythms of daily life. Of course, in following the novel of the same name by Thomas Perry, there is a buried past he has that has caught up with him all these decades later. Without going into too much plot detail, over the first four episodes shared with critics Chase must take to the road when his peaceful life crumbles around him. The line “I see you,” which is repeated a couple of times, becomes as much a warning as it is a statement of intent. The show seeks to reveal who Chase is even though he would rather remain unknown, both to survive and ensure he can live with what he has done in his past.

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On top of that, he’ll have to avoid the clutches of a relentless and fearsome John Lithgow as Harold Harper. The FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, he both has a personal connection with Chase and a motivation to ensure that anything he knows is never revealed to those pursuing him. Much of this is tied to a mission the two worked on that is conveyed via flashbacks, filling in the gaps of what served as the impetus for Chase to go into hiding. These scenes, while necessary, lack the same strength that Bridges brings to the role as we see him played by a younger actor. At times, they seem to implicate the character in how he hurt others with his meddling while at others it seems to buy into his role as savior. While muddled, this backstory doesn’t distract too much from the compelling heart of the show. It is not in the sporadic action or top-secret missions. These serve as window dressing for what works best, a more complex story that could have easily followed a more straightforward path.

Seeing Bridges chew into the many extended dialogue scenes is what really hooks you. Much of this is initially in phone conversations that reveal much about the character and what his life has become. It is his only way of connecting with his daughter whose identity remains unknown to us at first, a product of how Chase is trying to protect her. Now that his wife is gone, he clings to these conversations with the only family that he has left. Chase can’t really talk to anyone else or discuss his past, as that would only potentially bring them into danger. When he does so with a stranger he rents from on the road, you can practically feel the relief in the way Bridges carries himself. There is no one that is able to convey both humor and sadness in his tone as he can, making for a performance that elevates the material. Said stranger is also integral to the experience. Played with a real sense of grace by Amy Brenneman, whose performance in The Leftovers still remains unparalleled, Zoe is an important counterbalance to the brutality of Bridges. As she gets wrapped up in his crisis, including in a moment where things seem to get really bad, Brenneman makes the most of every moment. She challenges Bridges, putting him on his heels and opening up narrative potential. Multiple dinner conversations are where she really shines. As Zoe reaches out to Chase when no one else has in a long time, Brenneman is mesmerizing.

The closest reference point of what the series feels like it is going for is the 2010 George Clooney film The American, a work that was essentially an arthouse take on the spy film. The Old Man still plays out in a much more standard structure, but the bright moments more than shine through some of the duller ones. There is a richness to the experience that is as unexpected as it is worth praising. It still falls into the rather rote flashbacks, though the most promising aspects are the ones that defy expectation. Just as the 72-year-old Bridges is not a conventional action hero, The Old Man seeks out interesting narrative ground that avoids any common constraints whenever possible. It is not a story that just relies on a classic actor taking on disposable action to draw you in, instead sinking into greater depths with each passing episode. It is a show that never rests on its laurels, confronting and confounding in equal measure. While it is a little rough around the edges, much like Bridges himself, it still never lacks a sharp sense of tact and tension that transcends beyond any constrictions.

Rating: B+

You can watch the first two episodes of The Old Man on FX and Hulu on June 16, with the remaining five episodes released weekly.

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