Literary adaptations can be a sticky wicket, especially when the books in question are about terribly unlikable people and the little boy they abuse, neglect, and otherwise traumatize until he grows up to be a dissolute, suicidal drug addict.
Patrick Melrose — Showtime’s dramedy based on Edward St. Aubyn’s bleakly funny autobiographical novels, premiering May 12 at 10 p.m. — is a five-part exercise in prestige misery, built around an often showy performance by star Benedict Cumberbatch.
The opening scene is wonderful: We meet Patrick in his London flat in 1982, as he takes a transatlantic phone call alerting him that his father has died in New York. He starts to crumple slowly toward the floor, but it gradually becomes clear that Patrick is not overwhelmed by grief — instead, he’s bending down to pick up the needle he just used to inject himself with heroin.
Unfortunately, the subtlety of that moment is short-lived.
Writer David Nicholls chose to start Melrose with the second book in St. Aubyn’s series, Bad News, in which Patrick travels to New York to collect his father’s ashes and nearly kills himself during a drug-fueled weekend. The decision likely came from a desire to front-load the series with Cumberbatch — episode 2, based on St. Aubyn’s first book, Never Mind, focuses almost exclusively on 9-year-old Patrick — and the actor throws himself, sometimes literally, into his character’s pharmaceutical spiral, which alternates between fast-talking cocaine frenzy and rubbery Quaalude and heroin lethargy.
It’s not until the second episode, which takes place in 1962, that we learn why Patrick Melrose is such an emotionally disheveled mess in the first place.
One summer day in the South of France, Patrick’s father rapes him, starting a pattern of abuse that goes on for years. As the terrifying David Melrose, the equally terrifying Hugo Weaving uses his laser-precision menace to infuse even the smallest moments with dread, and Sebastian Maltz, the actor portraying Patrick as a child, is extraordinary. (The episode is appropriately horrifying without being graphic; deceptively benign images, like a lingering shot of a neatly-made bed, take on an awful weight.)
By condensing each book into one-hour installments, Melrose must transverse some daunting narrative gaps, which makes the episodes feel choppy, and robs the larger moments — like Patrick’s spontaneous confession to longtime friend Johnny (Prasanna Puwanarajah) in episode 3 — of their emotional weight.
At the risk of provoking the wrath of the Internet, it must be noted that the 41-year-old Cumberbatch is a perplexing choice for the role of Patrick. The actor is nearly two decades older than the character in Aubyn’s Bad News; it’s an age gap that significantly alters the context of Patrick’s narrative arc, which in the novels ends with Patrick reaching early middle age.
Cumberbatch has been quoted several times saying that there were two roles on his “bucket list” — Patrick Melrose and Hamlet — but just because you can cross something off your bucket list doesn’t mean you should. (It’s hard to imagine that a 41-year-old actress, meanwhile, would be given such chronological latitude.) Nor is the genteel Cumberbatch able to shed his controlled performing style enough to inhabit Patrick’s drug-fueled mania truly; the scenes feel precise and practiced, but not quite believable.
Overall, Patrick Melrose is a tale of unhappy people navigating various levels of suffering, but it’s also a beautiful-looking production that will allow fans to mainline doses of 100 percent pure Cumberbatch. Perhaps Patrick’s snooty family friend Nicholas Pratt (Pip Torrens) says it best: “Remember, it’s a party — you’re not supposed to enjoy it.” Grade: C+