I don’t usually do this in TV reviews, but given the beloved star status of Benedict Cumberbatch in certain circles of his loyal fans, I feel like a little history is in order. Like a lot of people, when I saw “Sherlock,” I had that lightning strike moment of revelation at Cumberbatch’s performance, still one of the most captivating and intriguing in the modern era of peak TV. Sadly, in my other role as a film critic, Cumberbatch has been something of an unfulfilled promise. Sure, he’s good in “The Imitation Game,” but “Doctor Strange” didn’t work for me and I’ve just been waiting for this clearly-talented star to get the vehicle that could once again display his talents like “Sherlock.” Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose,” debuting on Saturday night and running for five weeks, features the actor’s best work since he checked in to 221 B Baker Street, and reminds us how much he can rise to a dramatic challenge and deliver in every conceivable way. The series as a whole is not without its flaws, but it’s definitely worth watching for what Cumberbatch brings to it.
He plays the title character, loosely based on the real background of famous British author Edward St. Aubyn, who wrote the books that inspired the series. Set in 1982, “Patrick Melrose” opens with the death of Patrick’s abusive, horrible father, seen in flashbacks played by Hugo Weaving. Well, it opens with Patrick finding out about the death of his father, just after shooting up with heroin for the umpteenth time and falling to the floor as he hears the news, more smashed by the drug than grief. He’s the kind of rich man-child who buries every feeling—both the repressed old ones and any potential new ones—in booze, drugs, and general debauchery. And so when he’s asked to confront something emotional with the death of his father, he spirals.
Not at first. He goes to New York to retrieve his father’s ashes, and tells himself that he will survive the trip clean. He barely makes it to his hotel room before he breaks that promise. He orders a bottle of whiskey to his room and sets about finding drugs. The premiere of “Patrick Melrose” is almost like an extended sequence from the back half of “The Wolf of Wall Street”—think Leo barely able to make it to his car—as Cumberbatch’s character numbs everything approaching reality and nearly gets himself killed in about a hundred ways. All the while, the show is loosely filling in the background of Patrick, introducing us to his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a girl (played by Allison Williams) who Patrick embarrasses himself in front of, adding to his self-loathing spiral of decadence.
If you’re thinking that watching a spoiled rich kid fall victim to his addictions can make for dramatically shallow television, you’re not entirely wrong. There’s an air of “why should I care” to the long premiere of “Patrick Melrose” that’s a bit tough to avoid. But Cumberbatch’s work keeps you engaged. It’s a one-man show for long stretches, and he is entirely up to the twisted challenge, reminding you how really good he can be when given tricky material. He realizes that Patrick is more than just an obnoxious prick, finding the shades of clear trauma under the character, especially as he gets closer and closer to rock bottom. Patrick Melrose may be a tough character to spend too much time with but the show that bears his name is only five episodes long. Sounds just about right.