The biggest problem with television as an art form right now is that it gives us too many new shows but too few new stories. Doctors. Lawyers. Cops. Wild teens. Families with Neanderthal husbands, harried wives, and a few cute kids. Series set in outer space or in a fantasy realm, where the political conflicts echo our own. There’s comfort in familiarity, to be sure. But it’s a rare pleasure, these days, to encounter a premise that feels genuinely original.
One such story is The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, the absorbing six-part Apple TV+ miniseries that creator Walter Mosley adapted from his own 2010 novel. Samuel L. Jackson embraces vulnerability in his portrayal of the title character, an elderly man with dementia who lives in urban squalor, surrounded by the detritus of a long, tough life. Most of the time, he drifts around aimlessly in his own memory, with only his visions of his surrogate father Coydog (Damon Gupton) and late wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) for company. Then, with his mental decline accelerating, Ptolemy loses his nephew and caretaker, Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), whose murder he registers only after stumbling upon the open casket at a gathering in the younger man’s honor.
At the same event, Ptolemy is introduced to 17-year-old Robyn (Dominique Fishback from Judas and the Black Messiah), an orphaned family friend who used to care for her addict mother. She is to be his new live-in helper, and she turns out to be a great one, pushing right past Ptolemy’s stubbornness and incoherence to clean up his reeking apartment and restore some dignity to his existence. They form a bond so pure and so fierce that it almost seems supernatural.
There is, in fact, a single sci-fi element in the series: one of Reggie’s last acts was to enroll Ptolemy in a mysterious clinical trial administered by a certain Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), who promises to temporarily restore Ptolemy’s memory and wits. The experimental treatment would allow him to settle decades’ worth of urgent unfinished business—but at what cost?
None of this is terra incognita for Hollywood. In many ways, the protagonist we meet in the first episode of Ptolemy Grey resembles Anthony Hopkins’ character in last year’s Best Picture nominee The Father—lost in the morass of his own mind, always falling through trap doors to alternate realities. Touching tales of intergenerational friendship aren’t so hard to find, either. And the substance of Ptolemy’s quest, and the medical technology that enables it, engages with one of the most pressing and frequently explored issues of our time: anti-Black racism.
What feels so fresh—and so successful, thanks to stunning performances from Jackson and Fishback—is the boldness with which Mosley combines seemingly incompatible elements. He deftly weaves together the devastation that follows betrayal and the uplift of found family, science fiction and stark realism, character development and sociopolitical commentary. When Ptolemy dubs Rubin “Satan,” the Faustian nature of their bargain becomes undeniable; Goggins underplays Rubin’s reaction, complicating the white man’s role through grim self-awareness.
There’s more than one way to talk about love, grief, injustice, and inherited trauma. Fiction offers the unique chance to interpolate old themes in new metaphors, reinvigorating crucial conversations bogged down by cliché. In Ptolemy Grey, Mosley uses that capability like the superpower it is.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey debuts March 11 on Apple TV+
This appears in the March 14, 2022 issue of TIME.
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