Television as an art form is currently plagued by too many shows and too few stories. Doctors. Lawyers. Cops. Teenagers who are wild. Family with Neanderthal spouses and stressed wives. The series is set in space and fantasy, with political conflicts that echo ours. There’s comfort in familiarity, to be sure. But it’s a rare pleasure, these days, to encounter a premise that feels genuinely original.
Another example is Ptolemy Grey in the Last DaysThe six-part Apple TV+ series, adapted by Walter Mosley from his 2010 novel. Samuel L. Jackson plays the role of the elderly, demented man in the title story. His life is filled with poverty and the remnants of an extremely difficult, long-lived, hard life. His memories are distorted and he wanders aimlessly, but he has his images of Coydog, his surrogate father, (Damon Gupton), as 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.
Ptolemy, 17, is presented to Robyn (Dominique Fishback) at the same time. Judas Iscariot and the Black MessiahAn orphaned, close-knit family friend that used to take care of her mother who was an addict. 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. The bond between them is so intense and strong that it seems almost 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?
Hollywood is not privy to any of these. We meet the protagonist in Episode 1 of Ptolemy Grey resembles Anthony Hopkins’ character in last year’s Best Picture nominee The Father—Lost in his own thoughts, he fell through many traps to other 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. His skillful weaving of the destruction that results from betrayal with the recovery and uplift provided by found family, science fiction, stark realism and character development, sociopolitical comment and character development is remarkable. 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. You can find it here Ptolemy GreyMosley makes use of this ability like a superpower.
Apple TV+ will premiere The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey on March 11,