The Old Man Is Reminiscent of the Old FX, for Better and for WorsePhoto Courtesy of FX TV Reviews The Old Man
This review originally published on June 1, 2022.
No network had a better run in the late 2000s and early 2010s than FX. From must-see dramas (Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and The Americans) to auteur-driven comedies (Louie, Atlanta, and Better Things) and riveting limited series (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Fargo), the network was home to some of the best shows on TV for a decade. But that identity has shifted over the last several years.
While FX is still producing some of the medium’s best comedies (What We Do in the Shadows and Reservation Dogs immediately come to mind), the network’s dramas have struggled to operate at the levels previous entries once did. The 1980s-set crime drama Snowfall, renewed earlier this year for a sixth and final season, is an indisputable success, but it’s rarely a topic of cultural discussion. Meanwhile, Mayans M.C. certainly has fans, but it has never lived up to the legacy of its predecessor. And the recently concluded Pose flew under the radar for too many, never receiving the respect it deserved.
Now, the network, which has splintered its identity across cable and streaming in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of Fox in 2019, may be getting back on track. The new drama series The Old Man, premiering June 16 with back-to-back episodes, recalls the FX series of old, for better and worse.
Adapted for TV by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine from the 2017 novel of the same name by Thomas Perry, the series stars Oscar winner Jeff Bridges as Dan Chase, a mysterious and dangerous man who fled the CIA decades ago for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, but begin to unspool over the course of the seven-episode first season. When an assassin tracks him down after years in hiding, Chase goes on the run with his two dogs and is forced to confront his past to preserve his future. At the same time, his one-time compatriot Harold Harper (portrayed by six-time Emmy winner John Lithgow), now the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, is brought in to hunt Chase down. The result is an engaging and sometimes thrilling two-hander.
Of course, to call the show a two-hander is also somewhat disingenuous, as there are two other major players here. Amy Brenneman portrays Zoe McDonald, a divorcée from whom Chase rents a room while on the run, thereby ensuring that she becomes tangled in his complex web of secrets, fake identities, and dangerous assassins. But she also proves to be a formidable and unpredictable adversary, as she refuses to let herself be controlled by Chase, even after they’re forced to flee for their safety. Meanwhile, Alia Shawkat’s Angela Adams, Harper’s protégé, has secrets of her own that threaten the entire operation.
But it almost doesn’t matter what Chase did or why he fled the CIA; what makes The Old Man worth watching is not necessarily its flashback-heavy narrative, it’s the talent at its center. Bridges (who was diagnosed with lymphoma during production but has since gone into remission) and Lithgow give powerful performances as two aging men whose relationship spans decades and defies explanation. In the series premiere, Harper warns Chase of the trained men coming after him—but he’s not an ally either, as future episodes see him take drastic measures against Chase. It’s not wholly unlike the push and pull between Justified’s lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), as a deeply complicated past connects them and colors their decisions in the present. The fact that Bridges and Lithgow make their characters’ connection feel tangible without ever sharing the screen is a testament to their abilities as actors.
But while The Old Man might at times feel reminiscent of the compelling dramas that once set FX apart from the rest of cable, it suffers from the network’s worst tendencies as well. Of the four episodes screened for critics, three run longer than an hour (without commercials). This is a problem that affects more than just FX series, but the network was one of the earliest offenders when the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy would regularly extend beyond their allotted one-hour block. It’s been a decade since then, and while hour-plus episodes are still not the norm for TV, they’ve ballooned in numbers thanks to cable, premium cable, and streaming not being beholden to traditional broadcast standards. Andrew Garfield’s true-crime drama Under the Banner of Heaven, streaming on Hulu but produced by FX, features multiple episodes that run more than an hour. Meanwhile, Netflix is littered with series in desperate need of an editor, with the new season of Stranger Things being one of the most egregious examples yet. There are few instances in which an extended run time is necessary to tell a story, and the result is that television is becoming filled with poorly paced series. To steal a sentiment from Jurassic Park: we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, that we didn’t stop to think if we should.
There is little doubt in my mind that The Old Man could tell its story in under an hour. An extended fight scene in the premiere is meant to reveal how dangerous Chase still is at his age, but it would have packed the same punch even if it were a minute or two shorter. Elsewhere, extended silences and phone calls could be trimmed and not only still be effective and deliver the necessary information, but do it in a way that momentum doesn’t stall. This is imperative for a show like The Old Man, which intersperses its action sequences with quiet moments between characters, instances of reflection and conversation that naturally slow progress.
I’m still not sure what The Old Man looks like as an ongoing series—the show’s creators have said they don’t intend for it to be a limited series—but one thing is clear: If the show is renewed for Season 2, they’ll need to do something about its run times to give it a chance of having a long and bright future. This is one of FX’s best shows in a while, with capable actors doing excellent work, but it ultimately won’t matter if no one’s willing to sit through the hour-plus episodes every week.
The Old Man premieres with back-to-back episodes on Thursday, June 16 at 10 p.m. on FX
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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