Ptolemy Grey’s life is a disorganized mess. Suffering from dementia, the 91-year-old is a hoarder, with used pizza boxes, broken lawn chairs, and stacks of old magazines strewn about his cramped apartment. He keeps a clock in his refrigerator, has to write instructions on his TV remote to remember how it works and sees people from his past that aren’t there.
Despite being physically healthy for his age, Ptolemy’s cognitive function is rapidly deteriorating, leading to confusion. That’s also how viewers will feel while watching the six episode Apple TV+ series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Mosley, who also serves as a writer and executive producer. What could have been an impactful and emotional drama, like its source material, is derailed by its own identity crisis when brought to the small screen.
Two episodes into The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, its potential is clear, even if its setup is laboriously unraveled. Ptolemy (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is a likable character, dishing out nuggets of wisdom along with dashes of humor. Jackson’s performance is transformative. He plays three different versions of the same character, with each one charismatic in their own way. And watching Jackson change his voice, demeanor and even his gait after he eventually regains his memories is incredible.
The limited series gets off to a simple enough, albeit rough, start. Watching Ptolemy—an old, forgotten man—being neglected by his family is harsh. He subsists on pork and beans, urinates in a can and sleeps under a table. Seeing Ptolemy struggle is jarring for anyone who’s ever watched a loved one suffer from dementia, and flat out morose for someone who hasn’t.
Ptolemy’s lone connection to the outside world is his nephew and caretaker, Reggie (Omar Benson Miller). Kind-hearted and generous, Reggie is killed under suspicious circumstances. Unaware of what happened, Ptolemy is picked up by a relative and taken to a wake. It’s there he realizes that Reggie has been murdered and his life falls into further disarray with no one to support him.
Fortunately, Ptolemy gets assistance in the form of an orphaned, teenage friend of the family named Robyn (Dominique Fishback). Tough, street smart, and a hard worker, Robyn is initially more interested in getting Ptolemy’s apartment organized so she wouldn’t have to live in squalor with her new roommate, but the two eventually bond. She sees the kind man that resides under a blank surface and her never-back-down attitude quickly earns his respect.
Fishback is more than a worthy partner for Jackson, evolving from a street-hardened teen to a protective caretaker. She’s so authentic she almost steals the show from her Academy Award-nominated co-star. The duo have genuine father/daughter chemistry as well and are the series’ most positive attribute. Sadly, their performances are mostly wasted on the show’s disjointed plot.
Somewhat ironically, the series’ wheels start to fall off when Ptolemy begins to have his memory restored by Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins). The experimental procedure will only last for a few weeks and has dire side effects, but it’s a devil’s bargain Ptolemy gladly accepts. He even humorously calls Dr. Rubin by a pet name, Satan. While bringing back his memories moves the story forward, the procedure fails as connective tissue for the show’s multiple plot lines.
Throughout the six episode season, Ptolemy is haunted by ghosts from his past who appear in dreams or visions. His Uncle Coydog (Damon Gupton) still has lessons to teach and a mission he wants carried out. His wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), who died from cancer, represents the lost love almost everyone can relate to, and something about Reggie’s murder gnaws at him. All of these characters are compelling on their own but never provide much needed layers for the show’s protagonist. Their stories are usually told out of sequence and rarely have a significant impact on the series’ most important plot line.
In one example, Coydog’s story is told in a series of childhood flashbacks. One of the few people who has truly cared about him, Ptolemy’s devastated as he watches him die, leading to lifelong scars. But a mysterious treasure that Coydog stole from a former sharecropper is built up to be a major storyline, and is mostly resolved by Episode 3.
Sensia’s story, meanwhile, is fascinating. Viewers will learn how Ptolemy met his wife back in the 1970s and are even treated to a CGI, de-aged Samuel L. Jackson a la Michael Douglas in Ant-Man and The Wasp. Ptolemy idolized his love, but we discover that their marriage wasn’t the fantasy he believes as a disoriented old man. It’s another somber part of his past but isn’t fleshed out enough to connect to his current path, leaving Sensia feeling like another interesting but essentially nonessential minor character. However, the most muddled storyline is Ptolemy’s quest to find Reggie’s murderer.
Once Ptolemy’s full memory has returned he begins to look into his nephew’s death. But by Episode 5 not only does he and the audience know exactly who the murderer is, he’s also confronted the killer and set up a final confrontation that viewers glimpse in the premiere episode. This leads to a bland finale that ends up being more interested in the legal machinations of Ptolemy’s money-grubbing relatives than the primary goal he has before his memory fades into oblivion.
Walter Mosley’s well-received 2010 novel has been lauded for it’s thought-provoking examination of aging, loss, family and identity. The TV version of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey will generate no such response. Due to its meandering nature and stretched out plot, the novel would have been better served as a well-structured film than a rambling TV series. Despite first rate performances from its stars, this is a show you’re likely to soon forget.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey premieres Friday, March 11th on Apple TV+.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not forgetting where he left his keys, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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