Developed for television by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Based upon The Old Man by Thomas Perry
FX on Hulu
Release Date: June 16th 2022 – July 21st 2022
Whatever it is you might be expecting from The Old Man after viewing its first episode, you might want to revise those expectations. Yes, the series premiere ends with a ferocious twenty minutes of sustained tension, action and a bruising fight sequence, most of which is delivered in one delirious single take that must surely rank as the best work that director Jon Watts (the MCU Spiderman films) has delivered, but the real tone of the series lies in the preceding forty minutes, a reflective drama/thriller that is more concerned with character and theme than it is in contributing to the more obvious aesthetics of the ‘geriaction’ genre.
If you want a sense of what Taken might have been like had Jeff Bridges said yes to the role of Bryan Mills, you get a little bit of it here, but this is a much more meatier concoction that just wanting to have Bridges’ former CIA agent Dan Chase beat up a bunch of guys younger than him. The first thing to note when the second episode gets going is that his character spends a large bulk of it experiencing the physical pain of having been beaten, bruised and desperately wanting to have a lie down to recharge his batteries.
In a short space of time The Old Man shows itself to be a series unafraid of dealing with consequences, a theme that reverberates throughout these seven episodes, but it’s also a series full of little moments that other action series rarely devote time to; Dan is just as slick at making eggs as he is at taking out bad guys, but there is also moments of a tentative romance with his lodger that does twist into something more dramatic, while grief, loss and the knowledge that time goes by quickly as you get older are also factored into the narrative.
Ageing is very much a predominant theme here. The first episode opens with a sequence depicting Bridges getting up several times throughout his bedtime to urinate and we then watch him go about his daily routines which involves going for a physical with his doctor that involves asking for tests regarding his cognisance. It’s a far cry from what you might expect from the opening moments of a series promoting itself as a spy thriller; it’s quiet, reflective and almost naturalistic in its portrayal, hanging on every word of Bridges’ performance. You can’t help but be sucked into it.
Most movies and television series that dabble in this genre want to hit the ground running with incident, set-pieces and conflict. Instead, show runners Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, adapting Thomas Perry’s best selling 2017 novel, take their time in slowly drawing us to Dan’s world, his telephone calls with his daughter (just a voice on the phone for the first episode) and his genteel conversations with his beloved Rottweilers.
Either this is going to be a drama about Alzheimers or it’s going to be a spy drama. Dan throwing his phone into a microwave could indicate either. When a threat is made on Dan’s life in a sequence that culminates with the character showing just how much he is willing to go to protect himself, the gloves comes off and the series is then replete with a quietly pulsating tension that culminates in its first episode with a single take sequence of vehicular crashes, never ending punches and intense squabbling for weapons, sometimes in overturned cars.
The series brilliantly doesn’t try to top this moment and instead settles into a mode more indicative of the preceding forty minutes that led to that moment, with long buried secrets from the past rising to the surface during an increasingly intense phone conversation between Dan and FBI Assistant Director Harold Harper, which sees the series classed up even more by casting John Lithgow in the role. Not long after Alia Shawkat shows up as Harold’s protege and daughter figure Angela and the series throws in a plethora of twists and turns that can’t help but leave you fighting the urge to chew your nails off, but the series brilliantly doesn’t rely on sensationalism to deliver them. Sometimes it’s just a simple visual moment or a line of dialogue that upends the characters lives and the course of the story.
When Harold discerns the possibility of treachery in his ranks from Angela, the series plays the thoughts and feeling of the character perfectly through Lithgow’s subtle performance before words are exchanged in tense dialogue scenes between himself and Shawkat, the latter putting in some magnificent work here which builds the character to final scenes that will no doubt cause much debate, at least until season two which one assumes will deal with the repercussions of the final episode going forward.
Similarly with Bridges and Amy Brennaman’s character Zoe, who takes on Dan as a lodger but who ends up finding herself being kidnapped and dragged through a story that will take her out of her comfort zone. So many movies and television shows have used the ‘relationship borne out of kidnap’ trope, but here the whole strand is portrayed in a much more tense and realistic way and never for one moment allows itself to make the obvious storytelling decisions.
Audience members craving something more akin to the likes of 24 or Homeland might be wondering at various points when something is going to happen here. Instead of producing an endless mix of action and cliffhangers, The Old Man wants to luxuriate in tension when it comes to theme and character. Flashbacks to Dan’s time in Afghanistan – where the character is played brilliantly by Bill Heck – when the Soviets had invaded the country and a good fifteen years or so before the US would do so in a post-9/11 world, take the type of heroics that were once the domain of Rambo III and the James Bond film The Living Daylights and twists them into a gutter of complex motivations and behaviour that is a world away from the more basic ‘good vs evil’ moralities of other shows and movies.
When Harold mentions a character of the name Faraz Hamzad in the first episode, you might be thinking we’re in for something from the 24 or Homeland style of storytelling. The latter might have been more complex than the former, but it was still a lightning rod for controversy over how it portrayed characters who were Muslim. There are constant hints that Hamzad is a frightening character and we might be in for another somewhat typical portrayal that equates being Muslim with being a terrorist, and yet his motivations and behaviour are possibly the responsibility of Dan due to his decisions in his younger days, a pleasingly tense concoction that the series delicately mines for its drama and tension and which perhaps says so much about foreign policy without ever spelling it out in an unsubtle manner.
When we finally catch up to Hamzad in the final episode in the present day, played by Navid Negahban (Pen Vahdat plays the role in the flashbacks), he is not portrayed in a typical villainous manner. He is, like Dan and Harold, a figure plagued by the passing of time, advancing years and haunted by memories of a past he can’t hold on to. It’s a subtle and low-key dramatic way to end a season of television that finished its first episode with a flurry of fury and violence, but it gets at the heart of what makes the series such a brilliant concoction in a genre that always goes for typical tropes all the time.
It leaves one eagerly anticipating its second season.