Deep-rooted trauma isn’t something all stories of wealthy, troubled men wear on their sleeves, but it’s an element almost all of them share. Patrick Melrose makes this its key point, around which its languorous Ferris wheel and its violent Tilt-a-Whirl rotate. Benedict Cumberbatch, as the title character (who’s played by the astonishingly understated Sebastian Maltz in flashbacks), is the ringmaster and attendee of this cultural carnival. And though it has plenty of attractions you can see elsewhere—and some that are nauseatingly indulgent—the combinations are sometimes worth the price of admission.
Melrose’s father (Hugo Weaving, an inescapable and cruel black hole), who abused him as a child, has died. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, so quiet and withdrawn she almost disappears entirely) has made it a point to be unavailable. This leaves Patrick to collect his father’s ashes. His traumatic journey, which attempts to balance sadness with black-humored and bitter cynicism, is an episode of How It’s Made for the modern TV protagonist: a look inside an emotional processing plant.
Patrick tries to numb the pain with women, like his girlfriend’s friend, Marianne (Alison Williams, who sparkles in her no-bullshit role), but mostly just turns to drugs as he wishes and washes between binge and sobriety-seeking purge like the contents of his heroin-addled stomach. Oh, right. The heroin. That’s because Patrick is a drug addict. Mostly addicted to heroin, but sort of addicted to anything he can put in his body—and especially addicted to the Romantic idea of doing them in general.
Clambering down the feverish script as if it were a bedsheet rope dropped from a prison tower’s cell, Cumberbatch caters to the show’s desire for displeasure as quickly and slapdashedly as possible. The actor is at his best playing men on the social fringes (Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, the creep from Atonement, Alan Turing, Smaug the dragon), and here he’s no different, except for the part about him being at his best. His performance is as erratic as his character’s reaction to his father’s death: total misery and sweet, opiatic euphoria. When someone’s sold to you as a playboy, you think Leonardo Dicaprio in real life, not Leonardo Dicaprio in The Aviator... or Leonardo Dicaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. And yet, in Patrick Melrose, that’s what the ultimately insecure protagonist delivers, no matter how familiar a sight—at least in the first half of the miniseries made available to critics.
The visuals, the real sights, aren’t quite as played out. Director Edward Berger presents a morose and damp Wes Anderson world where the vibrant primaries are washed out to pastels and the daddy issues flow freely, accompanied by a heated, Fincherian love of vulgar close-ups. It may not be totally fresh, but it’s certainly engaging. James Friend’s photographic style—with long, hyper-stable tracking shots and immaculate colors—and construction of visual punchlines are a respite from the dialogue, which often seems to take its inspiration from fun-hating astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s willfully dickish literalism: “You keep asking that, but how can ‘everything’ be alright? It’s simply too much to hope for,” Melrose questions a waiter at one point.
Despite some grating witticisms, the conversations between characters can be crackling; they’re even more engrossing when Patrick holds nice long talks with his own inner monologue (making it a dialogue? The metaphysics make the grammar even more complicated). It’s certianly more intriguing—though not necessarily better—than most of his interactions with the other characters, because these energetic and bizarre rapid-fire impressions, pastiches, and mini-characters flit by as quickly as their portrayer goes through narcotics, creating a bipolar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-esque atmosphere that more closely reflects the show’s aesthetic. The exception to this one-man show of dysfunction is his run-ins with the drug dealers, waitstaff, and receptionist underclass constantly putting up with his bullshit, who all share a bemused fascination with the absurdly British oddball.
This oddity’s absurd ramblings and hyperactive flight to drugs differs from its aesthetic influences, because it isn’t a commentary on anything larger than Patrick’s own damaged psyche. His suicidal tendencies accompany a Westworld of hallucinated worlds, scenes, and conversations to create a series of cages, all linked to the past—which we see, in extended flashbacks, were born of his family’s cages.
The confinement of these people—their damnation to do the same things in the same places in the same ways—isn’t just a cycle of abuse, but one of social expectation. Ambition, it is said over and over in the series, is vulgar. Yet to quote the series’ guilty conscience (played with all the fallible empathy in the world by Indira Varma), “I’m sure it’s very American of me, but I fail to see what’s so glamorous about lost promise.” Perhaps I’ve just been raised to expect more wit or self-examination from my tales about cocky, damaged playboys that can’t escape the shadow of their families.
Patrick Melrose premieres Saturday, May 12 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.