Apple TV’s new limited series, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” feels every bit as overdue as the justice and redemption sought by its nonagenarian protagonist. “Ptolemy Grey” is a passion project for star and executive producer Samuel L. Jackson who has tirelessly hunted for a home for an adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel since its release in 2010. It’s also, improbably, the first-ever series-length treatment of Mosley’s work, despite his prolific output and a narrative milieu full of the sexy mysteries prestige television thrives on. (To be fair, Amblin Television announced last year a series based on Mosley’s popular Easy Rawlins detective novels, the 15th of which was released last month.) While “Ptolemy” has flaws in its execution, it’s redeemed by earth-shaking performances, and justifies Jackson’s desire to spotlight a storyteller confined to the page for too long.
Mosley created the series himself, having cut his teeth as an executive producer of FX’s “Snowfall” and a brief stint on “Star Trek: Discovery.” Mosley either wrote or co-wrote “Ptolemy’s” six episodes, and it’s hard to imagine that another writer could have gotten into the headspace of the truly unique character he created. Ptolemy Grey (Jackson) is a 91-year-old dementia patient living alone in a hoarded-out apartment in south Atlanta. Venturing out would be hard enough in his cognitive state, but doing so is impossible thanks to a neighborhood addict who attacks him and extorts him for money whenever he makes a rare appearance. His only connection to the world is his great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), who sees to Ptolemy’s essential needs and ensures he hasn’t been pinned by a collapsed tower of ancient magazines.
The pilot is an emotionally draining watch because of how vividly it renders Ptolemy’s life of addled squalor. Director Ramin Bahrani uses shopworn techniques to illustrate what it’s like to be Ptolemy, including gauzy lenses to obscure memories and a chest-mounted camera rig to convey disorientation. But with Jackson’s performance, among the best of his storied career, there’s little need for visual innovation. Jackson is truly heartbreaking as end-stage Ptolemy, who spends his days eating beans from a can and shadowboxing with ghosts from the indelible parts of his past. At 7 years old, Ptolemy witnessed the lynching of his uncle Coydog (Damon Gupton) and, decades later, suffered the loss of his tempestuous wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), both of whom call out to Ptolemy through a din of cognitive static.
Ptolemy is summoned to a relative’s home under vague pretenses only to find the occasion is a wake for Reggie, who was murdered in a seemingly unprovoked shooting. That’s one catastrophic loss too many for Ptolemy who vows, despite his declining condition, to find Reggie’s killer and bring him to justice. To that end, he accepts an invitation from the manipulative Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins at peak smarm) to participate in the kind of magical medical trial only found in fiction. Rubin has developed an experimental drug that, once injected, will perfectly restore Ptolemy’s memories for a month or so. The unfortunate caveat is that the window of clarity can’t be extended, and once the drug wears off, Ptolemy’s dementia will return more virulent than ever. It’s a plotline that splits the difference between Mosley’s two primary literary modes: the period detective novels populated by shady operators and thick-thighed succubi, and the Afrofuturistic sci-fi novels interested in the human costs of innovation. (Dr. Rubin’s interventions reek of medical racism, the kind responsible for the Tuskegee experiment and HeLa cells.)
Mosley also excels at love stories, and there’s one for the ages at the heart of “Ptolemy,” albeit a sweetly platonic one. The vacuum in Ptolemy’s life created by Reggie’s murder is filled, at first reluctantly, by 17-year-old Robyn (Dominique Fishback), an orphan seeking safe haven. She moves into Ptolemy’s barely inhabitable space out of necessity, then forms a tender friendship with Ptolemy and becomes fiercely protective of him when Dr. Rubin’s machinations raise red flags. She becomes his closest ally, something of a detective’s sidekick when the medication renders Ptolemy sharp enough to home in on Reggie’s killer and order his affairs using his reclaimed memories. There’s a lovely ambiguity to Robyn’s bond with Ptolemy, who she refers to as her uncle despite no relation to him, while also acknowledging that their connection might have turned romantic if not for their seven-decade age difference.
It’s no small feat to stand up to Jackson in what is essentially a two-hander, and Fishback never shrinks from the challenge. Their chemistry is so potent that it’s always in the foreground of “Ptolemy,” to the extent that Ptolemy and Robyn’s unorthodox relationship crowds out the plot elements most responsible for propelling the story. And those elements are plenty: an alligator suitcase stuffed with cash; an ancient treasure buried under old floorboards; and the craven relatives leveraging the legal system to gain control of Ptolemy’s fortune. Combined with the whodunnit (this is still technically a detective story, after all), it should be too much plot for six episodes. But the surplus of storylines often feels like a deficit. Jackson and Fishback are so charming together that any scene that doesn’t combine their forces — even the scenes most consequential to the rigidly structured story — feels like idle time.
Perhaps that’s why the finale is easily the weakest episode. Ptolemy and Robyn are ultimately torn apart by forces that should be clear from the synopsis, and while the final installment ties off loose ends with impressive efficiency, the most compelling part of the story has already sunsetted. The finale is, in other words, a belabored epilogue not unlike the ones found in Mosley’s novels. The structural miscues suggest Mosley’s still figuring out how to port his storytelling techniques to a different medium. But there’s a rapturous quality to “Ptolemy” that more than compensates for the growing pains of adaptation. Given the latitude and opportunity, Mosley has an excellent television show inside him, and if the best parts of “Ptolemy” are any indication, it’ll be impossible to forget.