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Jeff Bridges makes a triumphant return to TV in 'The Old Man'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Jeff Bridges has had a rough couple of years battling lymphoma, from which he's currently in remission, and contracting COVID-19. But during that same prolonged period, he filmed a new seven-episode miniseries called "The Old Man," which premieres tomorrow on FX and begins streaming on Hulu on Friday. Bridges, 72, plays a former CIA operative who resurfaces after decades off the grid. "The Old Man" co-stars John Lithgow and Amy Brenneman. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Jeff Bridges began his acting career on television in the 1950s, as a young boy playing occasional guest roles on "Sea Hunt," the series starring his dad, Lloyd Bridges. But once he came into his own in the '70s, the younger Bridges set out on a long and stellar film career. He's logged triumphant roles in virtually every decade since, from "The Last Picture Show" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" to "The Big Lebowski" and the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit." His most recent film, "Bad Times At The El Royale," was four years ago. But now, after some health issues and a production schedule delayed by the pandemic, Jeff Bridges marks his return in a strong role in yet another new decade. And this time, it's on television, where he began, as the star of a new FX miniseries called "The Old Man."

Based on the novel by Thomas Perry, "The Old Man" is adapted for television by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine. The first two episodes are directed by Jon Watts, director of "Spider-Man: No Way Home." I've seen the first four of seven, and they've really pulled me in. The mood and feel of "The Old Man" is like a more modern "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Everyone has very complicated relationships with each other. Few people can be trusted completely, and almost no one is who they appear to be.

The drama starts out at a deliberately slow pace. Jeff Bridges plays Dan Chase, a widower living in a remote patch of New England with two dogs. Early on, while he's exercising his dogs outside and heading back into the kitchen for breakfast, he gets a concerned phone call from his daughter, Emily.

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) You don't sound like yourself. You're preoccupied when we're talking. You're not sleeping. I'm just asking you, what's the difference now?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) I don't know. Something, you know, is just off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Listen, if this is about what I think it's about, then I understand why it frightens you. But I think you're fine, unless there's something you're not telling me. Is there something you're not telling me?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, sorry. No, no, of course not. I got to run, sweetie. I'll call you when I can.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) OK.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) OK. Bye-bye. Love you.

BIANCULLI: It seems like an ordinary father-daughter moment, but nothing about this drama or its characters is anything close to ordinary. The man using the name of Dan Chase used to be a CIA operative decades ago and has since gone into hiding. He senses that he may finally have been found, and he's right. And after a brutal confrontation, he hits the road with his dogs and calls his daughter.

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Hello?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Hey, kid. It's me. Sorry to be calling you at this hour. They found me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) What? Are you OK?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Yeah, I'm fine. The dogs are fine. But if they found me at the house, I can't go back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Are you sure it was them?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Just because after all this time, you know, it seems pretty unlikely.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Emily, Emily, I'm sure. I've been feeling it for a few weeks now. I thought maybe it was my imagination or my head making up ghosts to remind me I'm getting lazy and I still have things to worry about. But, no, this is not a drill. This is happening.

BIANCULLI: Once Dan is on the run, "The Old Man" gets more and more intricate. John Lithgow plays Harold Harper, an FBI agent called in to help track this flushed-out former spy because of their shared past. Alia Shawkat, from "Arrested Development" and "Search Party," plays Harold's very capable protege. And Amy Brenneman from "NYPD Blue" and "Judging Amy," plays Zoe, a divorced mother. She becomes involved in the intrigue when she rents a room to the character played by Jeff Bridges. By Episode 2, she asks him to take her to a restaurant. And to avoid suspicion, he does, and even engages in some uncharacteristically truthful conversation.

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

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) How long has it been for you since your last first date?

AMY BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) George Bush. Thereabouts.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, which one?

BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) Read my lips.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, that's a long time ago.

BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) Yeah, I'm just now realizing just how long. How about you?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) A bit longer than that.

BIANCULLI: This miniseries builds slowly but grippingly. The action sequences are intense and sloppy, less like stylized choreography than anything-goes, hand-to-hand combat. But most of "The Old Man" is slower and quieter. Bridges even conducts a conversation while cooking eggs in real time, like Stanley Tucci in the "Big Night." Both Shawkat and Brenneman give performances that erupt and shift at surprising times with great effectiveness. And Lithgow, opposite Bridges, is as mercurial and mysterious here as he was playing the Trinity Killer opposite Michael C. Hall on "Dexter" and may be just as dangerous. Since I've only seen half of this miniseries, I don't know how dangerous he is or anyone else. I do know that, as in "Homeland," perspectives and sympathies keep shifting. I'm hooked and I worry about these characters, but I'm not quite sure whom to trust or even whom to root for, except for those two dogs. I really like "The Old Man," but I love those dogs.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Old Man," starring Jeff Bridges. The series premieres tomorrow on FX.

On tomorrow's FRESH AIR - Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler. In a new series, he calls "We The Users," he says our phones and apps are allowing private companies to take our data, spy on our kids and limit our choices. He says our internet laws and practices have to change, and he has some ideas. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUNGE LIZARDS' "NO PAIN FOR CAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.