UK TV review: The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray
James R | On 11, Mar 2022
Episodes 1 and 2 premiere on Friday 11th March, with episodes then arriving weekly.
Samuel L Jackson is one of the most recognisable and exuberant screen presences around. He delivers a remarkably vulnerable, almost unrecognisable performance in The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, a drama about a man living with rapidly advancing dementia. Ptolemy, who lives alone with only his great nephew, Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), watching out for him, is an outsider on the fringe a society that has, tragically, forgotten him. But when a scientist (Walter Goggins) approaches him with a radical, experimental treatment to restore his memory and cognitive functions, Ptolemy finds himself thrown into a mystery that he becomes determined to solve.
His detective work carries an added urgency because his treatment will eventually leave him in an even worse condition, but the six-part series works because his motivation runs deeper than that; what begins as a tender tale of a man attempting to contextualise his memories grows into a layered story of regret, family, reconciliation and restitution.
Key to that is Dominique Fishback’s Robin, a family friend who moves into Ptolemy’s home to help him both with everyday tasks and piecing together the bigger puzzle box. Fishback, who repeatedly stole scenes in Judas and the Black Messiah, is phenomenal here, going toe to toe with Samuel L Jackson with a performance of wit, honesty and humour, as she gets to know the man before his dementia clouded his personality.
But this is Jackson’s show, and it’s worth tuning in just to see him in action, as he moves seamlessly back and forth between lucidity and confusion, between flashbacks to his traumatic childhood and glimpses of his raconteur adult charmer, all with just a slight adjustment in his eyes or gait. His dynamic with Fishback is one of convincingly trust and growing friendship, just as his interactions with Goggins’ scientist are simultaneously suspicious and shot through with mutual respect.
Adapting Walter Mosley’s novel as a series rather than a film gives these relationships room to breathe and evolve, and those nuances build and build into something beautifully rich. It’s as much an ensemble drama about justice and rectifying wrongs (both remembered and forgotten) as it is about finding strength in the loved ones around you; it’s not just about payback, but paying things forward, and the unhurried pace allows for all these themes to play out organically. The result is one of the most rounded screen portraits of dementia in recent memory, charting the journey of a man who’s frightened of the changing world around him as he lets go of those fears and holds on to other truths, even if it’s just for a moment. As a moving showcase for Samuel L Jackson, it’s one to watch; as something more surprising, it’s a real treat.