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Samuel L. Jackson is a man sacrificing everything in 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey'


Samuel L. Jackson's first lead role in a live action TV series drops today with the debut of "The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey" on Apple TV Plus. The limited series is based on the book by Walter Mosley. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a compelling meditation on the power of personal history disguised as a murder mystery.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As the series begins, Sam Jackson's Ptolemy Grey is a 93-year-old man living in a world of sharp sounds and confusing memories.


SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) Get out of here. Move.

DEGGANS: Ptolemy has dementia, so the sound of a fire engine can bring vivid memories of a fire that killed his best friend when he was a boy. It's an illness which has snuck up and stolen his life, leaving him sleeping on the floor in a cluttered apartment, his grand nephew, Reggie, as his only caretaker. When Reggie takes him to a restaurant, Ptolemy admits he's got a problem.


JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) You know, Reggie, it seems like - it seems like I can't remember nothing no more. I sit, and I try to say what day it is. I ain't got a clue.

OMAR BENSON MILLER: (As Reggie Lloyd) So you want me to take you to that special doctor? That special doctor - the one that could help you remember things.

JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) When that chicken going to come?

DEGGANS: The doctor, named Rubin, is played in a sly bit of casting against type by "Justified" alum Walton Goggins. Turns out, Dr. Rubin is pioneering a new treatment for dementia, and Ptolemy would make a perfect test subject.


WALTON GOGGINS: (As Dr. Rubin) After two doses of the drug that we've developed or administered, Mr. Grey, within a week's time, will remember everything that he has ever known. He'll know details that you or I or any normal person couldn't possibly remember.

DEGGANS: The drawback is that Ptolemy will die within weeks. This sets up the devil's bargain of the Apple TV Plus series. When Reggie is shot and killed, Ptolemy takes the medicine to both solve his murder and fulfill a different promise he made long ago as a boy.

It may seem as if the series will turn on a revitalized Ptolemy playing Columbo, but the real heart of this series is Jackson's character exploring his own personal history. It ranges from the lynching of his boyhood mentor to the fractured state of his current family. And at the center of it all is a heartbreaking depiction of dementia and caregiving, with Dominique Fishback turning in a ferocious performance as Robyn, a 17-year-old girl who winds up caring for Ptolemy after Reggie's death. She begs him not to take the treatment, but Ptolemy's got a pretty good counterargument.


JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) So let's flip this.

DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: (As Robyn) Flip what?

JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) What if it's you who smelled like body waste - who got the mind of a child in a grown woman's body? What would you do? And don't say you'd jump out a window because you can't even remember how to open the damn thing up. You don't know whether to hate your condition or to hate yourself.

FISHBACK: (As Robyn) You feel all that?

JACKSON: (As Ptolemy Grey) All the time.

DEGGANS: Jackson and Walter Mosley, one of literature's most lauded crime novelists, spent more than a decade searching for an outlet willing to make this project. The actor wanted to tell the story because family members, including his mother and grandfather, suffered from dementia. It's as if the world of streaming had to evolve enough to make room for a miniseries that evokes everything from the trauma often embedded in Black families' histories to the Tuskegee experiment. It pays much more attention to the struggle for a Black man to come to terms with his own past than any kind of murder mystery.

This story takes on a lot. Not everyone will love it. But "The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey" is also a powerful showcase for one of Hollywood's best, playing a man who sacrifices everything to redeem his family and fulfill his life's purpose. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LUMINOUS BEINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.