Skip to main content
opinion

Dominique Fishback and Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, now streaming on Apple TV+.APPLE TV+

The dialogue has an uncanny resonance for anyone who has had the experience of dealing with dementia among family or close friends. One of the family says, a little impatiently, “C’mon, you remember!” And the answer is a plain “No.”

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (streams AppleTV+) has many themes and many threads of story that don’t always connect with clarity, but it will ring formidably true for a good section of the audience. What rings is the depiction of a slow, then quick decline into dementia. At first, the central figure, Ptolemy (Samuel L. Jackson) is merely forgetful, lost in thought about the old days and maybe brooding on simmering regrets. He’s also a bit wary, being elderly but alert enough to know he can be preyed upon.

Then his mind declines some more and stock phrases are his way of dealing with feeling disoriented. Soon, however, he’s admitting, in his isolation, and to no one in particular, “I remember some things, but I can’t remember what day it is.” Obliged to write his signature, he hesitates.

Catch up on the best streaming TV of 2021 with our holiday guide

This six-part drama (two episodes now, the rest arrive weekly) has a lot going for it. First, the acting. Jackson, whose career has been built on his film presence as a commanding figure of inescapable stature and, sometimes, menace, glides into the central role with a subtlety that has a sort of glow to it. This is not a showy, go-for-broke performance, the type you associate with major American film actors playing a character with a physical disability or mental hindrance. Jackson, big-hearted, draws out the poignance of Ptolemy’s circumstance by deftly playing off the others actors, allowing them space, and pulling back from ostentation.

It’s a sight to savour, especially in the early episodes. Ptolemy survives in a cluttered, dirty apartment in Atlanta, watching cable news and sometimes conversing with figures from his Mississippi childhood. His nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) takes him to medical appointments and the bank. Sometimes, Ptolemy perks up when he’s outside, and sometimes he’s just afraid. But Reggie dies and Ptolemy’s new caregiver is the teenager Robyn (Dominique Fishback). They seem a mismatched team but the dynamic is extraordinary to see.

A thread is picked up from the first episode – a new clinical trial run by a doctor (Walton Goggins), who seems both shifty and smarmy, might restore Ptolemy’s memory but with an ominous conclusion. Consenting to take the drug, Ptolemy becomes a new man but still focused on both avenging Reggie’s death and sorting out those regrets from his distant past.

That storyline can feel slightly untethered from Ptolemy’s present situation and has a fantastical feel to it, while the present-day is firmly rooted in contemporary America. Still, Jackson embraces it all with aplomb and the relationship with Robyn is at times electrifying, she being both real and a representative figure, a stand-in for all the women he loved or misunderstood in his long life.

Samuel L. Jackson, Dominique Fishback and Walton Goggins in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a show about an ailing man forgotten by his family, by his friends, and by even himself.APPLE TV+

The suggestion that the series is a forceful reminder about dealing with dementia is not to insist that it is simply grim. The grace notes that Jackson draws out – in a script adapted by Walter Mosley from his own novel – are a wonder to behold. First, Mosley’s gift for muscular, straightforward vernacular is on display and you can tell Jackson relishes it. But there is more going on here than a depiction of dementia that asks us to respond with pity and resignation.

The drama asks more than a few questions about age and memory. There are hints that perhaps Ptolemy has suppressed some memories in order to survive and take care of others. There is also an admirable realness in Robyn’s approach to the old man. She’s too young to be cynical or have received opinions about the elderly. She treats him as both a great curiosity and a friend, never condescending to him. Like many streaming series, thus one can feel a little overlong, a little too involved with loose storylines that don’t add to the essence. But, throughout, Samuel L. Jackson dazzles in a down-to-earth way.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.