'Patrick Melrose': TV Review

Compelling and difficult, with a towering Cumberbatch.

Incredible performances, particularly from Benedict Cumberbatch, fuel Showtime's dark comic miniseries adaptation of the British novels.

There are a lot of competing narratives in Showtime's ambitious new miniseries Patrick Melrose — wealth, inherited wealth (which is different), class (which is different still), bad parenting, drugs, alcohol, thwarted ambition, depression. It's a pretty long list. But nothing compares to the dramatic reverberation at the center of the series: When you hurt a child, the damage lasts a lifetime.

In England, the five Patrick Melrose books from author Edward St Aubyn, who based them on his own life, are revered as 21st century literary treasures that grapple with the English class system, public schools (which are their version of our private schools), the stiff-upper-lip sentiment of the British and how, influenced by all of that, horrible events are oftentimes not spoken of or even acknowledged at all.

The five-part co-production from Showtime and Sky Atlantic uses each St Aubyn book as a chapter in the story of Melrose (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who tamps down his memories and pain with a plethora of drugs — heroin, in particular. When we first meet Melrose, he's answering the phone in a groggy state, seemingly tired and clearly suffering (though it's revealed in short order that he's just recently shot up). The phone call is from a British family friend in New York, letting him know the sad news that his father has passed away. Cumberbatch, as Melrose, is just a fraction of an eye-blink from falling into a drug-induced stupor, and he clearly just wants to end the call — but English manners and all that (even while on heroin). Yes, Patrick says, the news is quite a blow. He hangs up the phone, sits back and, very slowly and faintly, smiles.

Patrick Melrose is not a mystery. It does seem that maybe the series creators, at last for the first two episodes (that were sent for review), don't want to reveal too directly the root of Patrick's issues, but that seems rather silly given how much Patrick loathes his father, David (Hugo Weaving), and how much menace and evil Weaving's unrepentant abuser conjures up right from the start. Patrick's mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), meanwhile, chooses to look the other way and, with the aid of self-medication, deny to herself that a problem exists.

But it's that simplicity in structure that actually helps Patrick Melrose become a truly engaging miniseries (though it would have been a lot more helpful to have more episodes). By establishing immediately that Patrick has never been able to recover from the horrors that befell him as a 5-year-old boy, and that in his adult life he's an absolute mess trying to cope and navigate, it opens the door for the abundance of humor that fuels Patrick (one of the main traits that made the novels so widely appealing), and Cumberbatch snatches this opportunity and never looks back. It's a wild, often hilarious, dark and sad but also hopeful roller coaster that is kicked off in a fury in the first episode.

Written by David Nicholls and directed by Edward Berger, Patrick Melrose first and foremost wants you to know that Patrick is a rake and a rascal, an addict prone to epic debauchery and a man whose excess is almost always entertaining — until it's not. Racing blindly toward that line is what makes Patrick Melrose so briskly entertaining — Cumberbatch's searing wit and his relentless pursuit of pleasure and anything to numb the senses reels you in like it's a Hunter S. Thompson joy ride, only to pull up short and stare down into the endless depths of his pain. But that's the trick of the series, at least in the early going: Despite everything, Patrick is loads of fun, a hot mess of a man who draws friends and lovers into his orbit and takes them on this whirlwind trip, where it's easy to forget en route that it started from the darkest of all places.

"I turned blue in your bathroom," Patrick tells the parents of a friend, struggling to remember him.

"We had to take the door off!" one says.

"Yes, yes, 'tis I," Patrick says, pushing past.

Credit Berger's whipsaw directing and Nicholls' deft handling of tone for making all of this work in the early going — but it's hard to imagine the same level of success without Cumberbatch's wonderful performance.

Clearly this was not an easy story to bring to life — St Aubyn's real-life story, where as a boy he was raped from the age of 5 to 8 and the people who were meant to protect him were either doing the damage or contributing to it by looking the other way (though St Aubyn eventually becomes a professional writer, marries, has children, kicks his habit and uses therapy to help as much as possible, so there's some semblance of a happy ending).

St Aubyn's books about that time are infused with his biting humor, and the creators allow Cumberbatch free rein to explore that range of emotions, and he's absolutely essential casting to not only pull off the role but to let viewers know it's OK to enjoy the often hilarious, drugged-out debauchery, so long as they can stomach the telling of the whole story (told in flashbacks, with Sebastian Maltz as a young Patrick, plus voice overs from grown-up Patrick and a separate, archly British narrator) and to understand his bad behavior is a bandage covering an awful wound.

There are strong supporting roles throughout, but just like in Trust, FX's saga of the Getty family, it's not easy to find much sympathy for horrible rich parents. Despite the strength that Weaving and Leigh bring to the series as Patrick's parents, those parents were clearly lousy at best, despicable at worst. That doesn't allow much wiggle room for the actors. Whether it's a more sympathetic turn from Indira Varma as an American friend of the family or Prasanna Puwanarajah as Patrick's adult friend Johnny, the nuance is often found away from the core family (and most of David Melrose's friends). 

Again, two of five episodes is not ideal to judge where the miniseries ends up, but there's absolutely no denying that the writing, directing and especially Cumberbatch will make you want to return each week. For such a bleak story, that's quite an achievement.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hugo Weaving, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Indira Varma, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Anna Madeley, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Holliday Grainger
Writer: David Nicholls, based on the novels of Edward St Aubyn
Director: Edward Berger

Airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.