“Space is the breath of art,” says John Lithgow’s Harold in the first episode of The Old Man. As he acknowledges, it’s a quote from architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s also a succinct observation of what makes FX’s latest original so spectacular. Although it tells a story we’ve seen a dozen times before, it’s this intentional space The Old Man gives to this story that turns the series into a must-watch event.
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Although this thriller refuses to go into great detail, we already know the titular old man. Dan Chase (Jeff Bridges) is a former CIA agent who has lived off the grid for years. When an assassin breaks into his home, he is again forced to flee, a choice that attracts the attention of the FBI. With his life and his daughter in sight, Dan must avoid capture, but between the years he’s been out of the game and the hundreds of agents at the government’s disposal, he’s undoubtedly the underdog in this fight.
Most of the series follows Dan as he hides out with his partner by chance, Zoe (Amy Brenneman). As they try to uncover the truth, they are hunted by a group of people determined to capture or kill our old man, including Harold de Lithgow, his apprentice agent Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat) and Julian Carson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a trained special ops contractor. It’s another hardened solitaire story with a touch of cat and mouse. Only this time the cats far outnumber the mice.
Yet at every turn, the old man resists the predictability. This is largely due to the show’s absolutely stellar cinematography and directorial work. Directed by Jon Watts, “I” establishes the visual language of the series. The camera pays little attention to the secondary characters in this story. Instead, he settles unflinchingly over Dan and Harold, reveling in each of their grimaces, nods, and unfocused gazes. It’s not uncommon to see a scene unfold between Dan and a peripheral figure in his life and never see the face of that waitress, that doctor, or even that victim.
This selective scrutiny also extends to the sound design of the series. Long scenes unfold narrated by Emily, Dan’s daughter who often calls him. Her face isn’t (yet) shown, but through her pauses and sighs, she feels more likely real than 90% of the characters that have appeared on screen this year. Then there is silence. The old man favors quiet, swelling orchestral music, but only on occasion. Most often, it relies on the auditory language of everyday life – grunts, scrapes and uneven steps.
The result of all of these decisions is a show that perpetually resembles the tense moments just before a jump scare in a horror movie. You know something big and probably terrifying is about to happen; you don’t know when. It’s a feeling that the series is careful to deliver. Without giving too much away, the first episode of The Old Man ends with a fight that might be one of the most thrilling action sequences brought to television. Between hair pulling and cheap crotch shots, this is a scene that works simply because it strives to be as messy and uncoordinated as real life.
That said, based on the first four episodes that have been given to critics, it’s too early to tell if The Old Man will be the indisputable masterpiece that it promises to be. Either way, one thing is clear: FX has something special on its hands.
The first two episodes of The Old Man premiere on FX on Thursday, June 16. They will then be available to stream on Hulu the following day.
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