The five-part miniseries, on Showtime, is a rare achievement: an addiction memoir that works on-screen.
Patrick Melrose begins in 1982, in London, when Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) answers a ringing telephone to learn that his father has died. Immediately, it’s apparent that something is off. Patrick conducts the conversation as if he is underwater. Director Edward Berger’s lens indifferently tracks his striped-shirted torso, his hand, then the top of his short-cropped head as Patrick struggles to keep himself upright. The camera’s heavy apparatus droops and nods uncontrollably, swaying back and forth in an effort to keep Patrick in frame. Finally, the contents of the call tumble out of the phone and into Patrick’s brain, and he bends over. We think he’s wracked with grief—but instead, he picks up a syringe.
Since Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater vaulted him into the English canon in 1821—and certainly since beat writer William S. Burroughs’s Junky, in 1953—literature has seen no shortage of addiction sagas. Patrick Melrose, a five-part miniseries debuting on Showtime May 12, is based on one of them; the show is adapted from a series of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, in which Patrick serves as the author’s stand-in for his own struggles with heroin, his abusive father, and the privileged but isolating world he was born into. At the height of his addiction, which stemmed from repeated, harrowing childhood trauma, he was going through $5,000 worth of drugs a week.
But instead of dwelling on the height of addiction, the astonishingly vulnerable, raw Patrick Melrose is largely committed to exploring the duller but more important work of recovery. As St. Aubyn told The New Yorker in 2014, the books track Patrick as he tries to move forward from addiction “with dignity, from an impossible assault on dignity.” His books, the first of which was published in 1992, have since won a cult following—which counts among its ranks none other than Cumberbatch himself. Cumberbatch has said that his only two bucket-list roles are Hamlet and Patrick Melrose. (Cumberbatch played the Danish prince at the Barbican in London in 2015.) Shortly afterward, producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz reached out to Cumberbatch about this adaptation of St. Aubyn’s work. Cumberbatch signed on to both play the titular role and to executive-produce the miniseries.
Actors’ pet projects aren’t often known for their elegance; the news that Cumberbatch sought out the part could have suggested that Patrick Melrose would be an amalgam of carefully positioned Emmy reels. It’s true that the series is a smorgasbord of acting opportunities—especially in its first installment, “Bad News,” in which Patrick is under the influence of heroin, cocaine, quaaludes, amphetamines, and alcohol, alternately and all together.
The effect is not of a bull in a china shop, or of peasants storming the Bastille. Instead, it is a distracted unearthing, as if the high-strung protagonist has overturned the noble trappings of his childhood because he is searching for something beneath. It’s a restrained gesture, and mostly gentle, as befits a man so terrified of encountering the world sober that he ingests any drug he can find. But his spirit is still caustic enough to dislodge the baubles and bits of glass that embellish wealth, to shake off the trappings of class to reveal the creatures who dwell within. Unadorned, and naked, their frailty is blinding. Patrick Melrose invites the viewer to strip away illusions, as he does—to meditate, with him, on what it means to try to be better.