4 out of 5
Created by: Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine
covers season 1
Not to deter you – at all, because this is one of the best, most gripping, most amazingly acted and choregraphed shows of recent past – but the 7-episode first season of The Old Man… does not end in a place befitting of where it begins, and how it proceeds for the preceding, like, 98% of screentime. Which doesn’t mean the cliffhanger conclusion isn’t that, but that it maybe isn’t commensurate with how the story’s been told to that point, to the extent that I was waiting for three weeks, thinking the show was on hiatus, before realizing / accepting that the season had ended.
In review, it’s a completely logical place to wind up, but that’s essentially the “problem:” The Old Man has, to this point, weighed us down with layer after layer of ‘don’t trust anyone,’ such that, while the final threads are still ones we’ll desperately follow to a second season, we’ve started to think like former CIA agent Dan (Jeff Bridges), or his frienemy in the FBI, Harold (John Lithgow): plan ahead for all possible outcomes; try not to act surprised. We nod sagaciously when the information arrives, and think what to do next.
So three weeks after episode seven, I was still thinking. That means it’s perhaps underwhelming television in a sense, but think about that effect: that’s very powerful writing, to sweep me up like that, and insane to realize that actors who have such recognizable personages – Bridges, Lithgow, Alia Shawkat, Amy Brennerman – convince me, as soon as they’re on screen, that they’re not those names, but rather Dan, Harold, FBI agent Angela, divorcee Zoe. And what a show that it can take a completely been-there-done-that-premise – Dan has been in hiding, off the grid, haunted by past missions, when the FBI, under the direction of Harold, gets some overseas kill-orders they’re only too happy to comply with, dragging Dan back in – and make it fresh every step of the way; that The Old Man can not hide some of its “twists,” but still land them with incredible impact. (Of course, until you’re thinking like an aged spy – but again, even that says something about the level at which this show operates across the board, behind and in front of the camera.)
Everyone we’re introduced to is integral. Alia Shawkat and Brennerman – she gets mixed up in Dan’s escape – both start to play their own mini-conspiratorial games, but not in a cheap way where the show’s writers are withholding info, rather just allowing humans to be humans: doubting, tempestuous, petty at points, too trusting at others. Others, playing various operatives and assassins, bring a similar well-roundedness to their parts, encouraged by scripting that tries to emphasize that even killers go home at night. This is not a show of happily walking into the sunset.
And to that extent, it admittedly gets a bit showy sometimes, allowing action to extend for realism purposes – showing the actual struggle and exhaustion during fights – and letting some conversational beats resonate realistically, but questionable from a ‘cinematic’ perspective. There’s a choose-your-battles approach when it comes to this kind of realism, and The Old Man indulges in more battles than it maybe should overall, although within those moments, the scenes are perfect. That said, I’ll underline that the choreography in this – not only the stunts, but the blocking (and presumably invisible CG) during scenes – is insanely good, keeping everything in frame convincingly.
But as I began: let none of this deter you. Even though you can play spot-the-trope with the retired spy setup, and even though you’ll ask your viewing neighbor – “isn’t it obvious that…?” about some upcoming twist, and even though you might be wondering where episode eight is… watch it. Let yourself sink into it. Be a little terrified by it. Ask yourself, more and more, what you might do if caught between all the rocks and hard places The Old Man’s characters find themselves in, and be thrilled by whichever direction the show goes, guided so confidently by masterful writing, acting, and direction.