Casting Samuel L. Jackson as a man in his 90s with dementia is a bold choice. Is there any actor more defined by his command, his cool, his razor-sharpness? It’s like telling Bill Murray not to be funny.
Funny thing is, the person who cast Jackson as the title character in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+, was Samuel L. Jackson. He bought the rights to Walter Mosley’s 2010 novel of the same name and stuck with the project for more than a decade, finally bringing it to television as a six-episode mini-series written by Mosley and Jerome Hairston.
Jackson has said he was attracted to the story because of the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in his own family. But you can see another, more strategic reason he might cotton to Mosley’s touching blend of parable, mystery and period melodrama. Through a slightly fantastical plot device, Ptolemy Grey slides back and forth between crotchety dementia and full, get-your-swagger-on capability. So Jackson gets to have it both ways, and the show’s tension springs from our continuing assessment of Ptolemy’s mental state. We’re constantly rooting for him to be as much like Samuel L. Jackson as possible.
Set in present-day Atlanta, “Last Days” walks a sometimes fuzzy line between heartening fable and realistic, kitchen-sink character drama. The kitchen sink is literal in the first and best episode, directed by Ramin Bahrani (who has made his own stories in this vein, like “Goodbye Solo” and “Man Push Cart”). We meet Ptolemy in his squalid apartment, a cockroach-infested hoarder’s paradise where he attends to the bleak drone of cable news and struggles to piece together fragmentary memories of his Mississippi childhood.
The sudden death of a caretaker brings Robyn (Dominique Fishback), an orphaned 17-year-old, into his life, and they bond immediately. Ptolemy responds to her determination and honesty; she appreciates his fatherly chivalry and the intellect and sensitivity that shine through his mental fog. She cleans up his apartment and institutes some order; when she finds a scrap of paper with the details of a forgotten doctor’s appointment, she makes sure he shows up.
The backbone of “Last Days” is the love and respect that builds between these two mismatched characters, and most of its pleasure comes from the easy rapport between Jackson and Fishback. (She played the young, perceptive prostitute Darlene in “The Deuce.”) Jackson is as charismatic as ever during the long stretches when Ptolemy is lucid, but he’s also an extremely generous scene partner, and he doesn’t get in the way of Fishback’s quiet, nuanced performance. (He also has some nice scenes with Omar Benson Miller, who is moving in a smaller role as Ptolemy’s great-nephew.)
Ptolemy and Robin’s friendship would be a sufficient basis for a shorter work — Jackson apparently resisted attempts to turn the novel into a movie — and it is supplemented by a solid mystery plot: Ptolemy is determined to use the time and brainpower he has left to find out who killed the caretaker Robyn replaced.
But then there’s the other half of the story, and here the show is on less sure ground. The doctor Ptolemy sees — played by the usually reliable Walton Goggins with a note of uneasy unctuousness — offers him an experimental, short-term miracle: a complete but temporary restoration of his mind and his memory. It’s a magical-realist bargain with the devil (a point hammered home by Ptolemy’s nickname for the doctor, Satan).
The device gives the mystery its kick — Ptolemy needs the treatments to work if he’s going to catch the murderer. But it also entails frequent, increasingly detailed flashbacks to traumatic events in Ptolemy’s rural Mississippi youth and scenes in which the elder Ptolemy communes with long-dead characters who shaped his life, including an uncle (Damon Gupton) and a former wife (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams).
This side of the show is well–made and of obvious symbolic weight: Ptolemy himself suggests that his dementia might represent a purposeful forgetting, an unwillingness to deal with the horrors of racism and with his own deficiencies as a husband and father. (He assigns his failures a specifically racial dimension: He didn’t just need to be a better man, he needed to be a better Black man.) And his sacrificial but willing participation in the white doctor’s research is a complicated — or perhaps just muddled — reflection of the long history of the medical establishment’s exploitation of Black subjects.
The memory play isn’t very exciting, though, in terms of idea or action; you sit through it, waiting respectfully for the focus to come back to Ptolemy and Robyn as they tool around Atlanta and take care of business. (Some of that business concerns yet another plot strand, involving buried treasure and Ptolemy’s covetous relatives, that is entertaining if not very convincing.) And it gives the whole story a latent sentimentality that bursts through in the final episode.
In Jackson’s long career, “Last Days” is his first live-action starring role in a TV series, and you wish that he didn’t have to spend as much of it as he does auditioning for sainthood. When the story is being allegorical, it can be dreary and more than a little condescending. When it plays things straight with a fairy-tale chaser, it goes down smoothly.