This new golden age of television has one major benefit: rather than seeing our favourite big-screen actors for one action sequence, a fleeting wink and a smile, we’re watching them go through the whole gamut of human psychology, again and again, emotionally torturing themselves for our pleasure, for hours and hours on end. In this new era, more is more. In mediocre actors, this amount of exposure might make you absolutely sick of them. But with a great like Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, the result is absolute bliss.
Walter Mosley wrote the novel The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey in 2010. It’s a surprise to learn that the book was so recent, as there is something distinctly old-fashioned about Mosley’s adaptation for Apple TV+ – not least its constant flashbacks to the youth of Ptolemy Grey (Samuel L. Jackson), the 91-year-old protagonist. Ptolemy is being consumed by dementia but is desperately trying to keep it at bay. As he keeps telling people, memory is all a man has.
After the murder of his nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), the only person who looked after him in his senility, Ptolemy is visited by a 17-year-old friend of the family, Robyn (Dominique Fishback) – or “first bird of spring”, as he affectionately calls her. Robyn is an orphan, all but kicked out by a relative of Ptolemy’s, and the two wounded souls find solace together, Robyn resolving immediately to clean up the old man’s apartment if she is going to live there. At first it is Robyn with the steely resolve, and Ptolemy who is meek and unsure. But this dynamic changes as Robyn becomes a permanent fixture.
Weaved into this nuanced relationship – one that brings to mind Michael Caine and Julie Walters in the classic Britflick Educating Rita – are several other strands: first, Ptolemy’s treatment at the hands of Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), a man he calls Satan, whose revolutionary drugs might cure him completely; second, his desperate attempt to track down the person who killed Reggie; and finally, his search for the “treasure” that a father figure called Coydog (Damon Gupton) hid when Ptolemy was about seven years old.
The medical treatment, which is the only reason we ever see a lucid and sophisticated Ptolemy, hints at an element of the story that is almost science fiction and never feels coherently realised. This is a show concerned with people and memory, not any pressing need to predict how the future might look with the help of magic needles. It is just about the only aspect of Ptolemy Grey that feels unsatisfactory.
Elsewhere, in the human drama – the way that Robyn slowly opens up to Ptolemy; the affecting flashbacks to Ptolemy’s romance with wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) – the show is utterly spellbinding. This is because of the writing and Jackson’s commitment to the role, but also thanks to a thumpingly good cast: Fishback never puts a foot wrong, McWilliams is captivating from the beginning, and Miller is gorgeously vulnerable.
When all of that is put together, it’s irresistible. What we’re treated to over six long episodes is a comprehensive, mature study of a fascinating character. Ptolemy might be a little too wise and articulate to be 100% believable but, in Jackson’s hands and Mosley’s words, he is certainly a man you can’t take your eyes off. There will be precious few TV performances better than Jackson’s this year.
‘The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey’ premieres on Apple TV+ this Friday (March 11)