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Review: 'The Old Man' is worth watching for Jeff Bridges' performance

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Oscar winner Jeff Bridges returns to series TV for the first time in a long while. In the FX series "The Old Man," he plays a senior citizen with some surprises up his sleeve. It's based on a novel by Thomas Perry and debuts tonight. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says the drama, though sometimes predictable, is elevated by a top-notch cast.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As "The Old Man" opens, Jeff Bridges embodies the show's title as Dan Chase, a retiree and widower. He's struggling to keep up with his medications, his two faithful pet dogs and his grown daughter, who senses something isn't quite right with dear old dad during a phone conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Emily) When I was a little girl, I imagined there was nothing you were afraid of. I guess what I'm asking is, where did that guy go?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) I hate to break this to you, but you weren't very bright as a kid, Emily. I could have told you anything, and you would have bought it.

DEGGANS: Of course, Dan is joking. But when the conversation ends, he puts his cellphone in the microwave, and we know something deeper is going on. Later that night, Dan is woken from his sleep by a trip wire connected to tin cans that he put inside his home. He leaps from his bed and grabs a gun only to confront an intruder held down by his dogs, armed with a gun and a silencer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) You want to tell me your name?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

DEGGANS: The intruder is shot dead without saying a word. It turns out Dan Chase, who we will soon learn is aptly named, is a retired CIA operative living under a fake name. After killing his would-be assassin, Dan goes on the run, pitting his experience and instincts against an agency determined to either capture or kill him. "The Old Man" tells its story with deliberate pacing, punctuated by sharp action sequences featuring a 70-something Bridges in action hero spy mode. But the real juice here comes from the acting chops of the show's prodigious ensemble, including Alia Shawkat, Joel Grey and John Lithgow. Here, Lithgow, playing the official leading the hunt for Bridges' character, spars with a young staffer he suspects is secretly working against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

JOHN LITHGOW: (As Harold Harper) When I was in your shoes, sometimes I'd ask questions to get an answer. Sometimes I'd ask questions and watch the billiard balls bounce for a while.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm trying to figure out which one of the three you're doing with me right now.

LITHGOW: (As Harold Harper) It's fun; isn't it?

DEGGANS: This project comes at a curious time for Bridges, who has admitted he nearly didn't survive recent bouts with cancer and COVID that helped delay production of the series. On screen, he looks appropriately weathered but capable of Hollywood-style surprises, struggling to put on his socks one moment and dispatching a hitman half his age the next. Of course, he stumbles into the life of a younger love interest, played by Amy Brenneman, 15 years his junior, filling a role similar to the part she played in the film "Heat" almost 30 years ago. But here she's a damaged divorcee, wondering aloud to Bridges if she was the one who destroyed her marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) You're not the villain here.

AMY BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe McDonald) But nobody ever sees themselves as playing that role. There's a villain in every story. Maybe the only one who can play that role is the one who can't see it happening.

DEGGANS: Not too much foreshadowing, huh (ph)? FX's "The Old Man" follows a well-worn path with surprises you'll likely guess before the show gets around to revealing them. The pleasure comes from watching the incredibly watchable Bridges play a character that seems an embodiment of his current state, an old master always capable of making you care one more time. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIGONI SONG, "HIT LIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.