A telephone rings offscreen before the first shot reveals it and a man standing over it. It’s Patrick Melrose (Benedict Cumberbatch), and he appears out of sorts when the voice on the other line tells him that his father has died. “Must come as an awful shock to you,” the caller says, to which Melrose responds, “Something like that, yes.” Viewers won’t entirely understand what is happening in the opening moments of Bad News, the first episode of Showtime and Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose miniseries, and that’s perfectly fine.
The now-fatherless son goes to take a seat in a nearby chair, perhaps to avoid falling to his knees in grief. Instead of displaying any of the emotions such news generally elicits, however, the seemingly dazed Melrose notices something on the floor and goes to pick it up. It’s a used needle, and when he stands again, the camera reveals a small spot of blood on the elbow of his shirt, where he had pricked himself for a high moments earlier. Melrose is not affected by his father’s death, nor anything else for that matter. It’s simply the heroin kicking in.
Much like this scene, the Cumberbatch-led adaptation of British author Edward St Aubyn’s acclaimed novels is more of a slow burn than anything. Each of the five episodes, three of which this reviewer has watched, are based on one of the five Patrick Melrose novels. St Aubryn based the series on his own life growing up in, and out of, a highly dysfunctional upper-class British family. The method of adaptation may seem like a cheat of sorts, as each episode clocks in at an hour, while each book consists of hundreds of pages, but writer David Nicholls and director Edward Berger manage to retain the story’s purposefully stifled pacing.
Along with the performances by Cumberbatch and the other actors, including Hugo Weaving as Patrick’s tyrannical father David and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his oft-absent mother Eleanor, Nicholls and Berger also craft a darkly comic story relying just as much on visuals as language. Of course, Cumberbatch’s Melrose shines brightly even when he’s talking to himself (as he does throughout Bad News), but he also rises to the occasion (despite, or because of, his high) when he stumbles into the wrong parlor at a mortuary.
Weaving does the same as David, whose mere look strikes the fear of God into a maid at the family’s French villa in the flashback-heavy second episode, Never Mind. His words speak just as loudly, as when he picks up a younger Patrick (Sebastian Maltz) by the ears and snarls in his face. And so it goes with Leigh’s Eleanor, the mother Patrick so desperately needed, but who instead absconds with high society friends like Anne Moore (Indira Varma) or by herself, just so she can avoid David’s wrath.
Patrick Melrose is comical. Whether in Patrick’s hilariously awkward attempts to save face at a party while mid-recovery in episode three, or his wearing an eyepatch to disguise a heroin bender-induced injury in the first entry, there are plenty of laughs to go around. But this is neither slapstick nor witty banter alone. It is a deeply tragic story about a man whose life is already in shambles when he learns of his tormentor’s death, and who then spirals further out of control when the sadness he feels for that monster torments him further. More than anything, Patrick Melrose is a story about a victim, his long road to recovery and his attempts to avoid repeating the same mistakes his parents made with his own children.
It’s also a story that takes time. St Aubryn took five separate novels and many years to lay out Patrick’s tale of redemption. Showtime’s co-production with Sky takes far less time, but as previously stated above, the showrunners successfully work in the necessary pace across all five episodes. The details of David’s abuse of young Patrick, the latter’s rampant drug use before and after the former’s death, then rehab and reintegration into the “real world” (as opposed to the Melrose family’s high society life) — all of this takes time to tell. As a result, it requires a great deal of patience from the audience, while also bombarding them with tragedy.
If you’re willing to forgo Cumberbatch’s otherwise insanely popular personages as Marvel’s Doctor Strange or the BBC’s Sherlock, riding along instead for something more akin to his work in The Imitation Game or Hamlet, then you will be greatly rewarded. Patrick Melrose is an excellent study of maligned characters and the unjust world they inhabit. Many of the fine folks involved in its making will surely be nominated for various industry prizes in the coming year. So you might as well get ahead of the curve and give it a go. Besides, did I mention that Cumberbatch wears an eyepatch at one point?