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Go On a Bender with Showtime’s ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch shines in a role he seems born to play, Showtime’s ‘Patrick Melrose.’ Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hugo Weaving round out the fantastic cast.

Showtime’s Patrick Melrose is admittedly a tough sit. The premiere episode, “Bad News,” follows the titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch) from one bender to the next. Strung out on heroin. Swearing off heroin and cutting withdrawal with some quaaludes. Going back on heroin. Tossing in cocaine for good measure. Trashing his hotel room. It’s all a lot to take in, and for a while, it feels like it’s going nowhere.

But just wait…

Opening the limited series, Patrick receives the bad news of his father’s (Hugo Weaving) death. On the surface, his reaction to the news seems one of macabre joy. Yet, over the course of the first hour, Cumberbatch reveals complex shades of grief, joy, anger, resentment, fear and loathing. If I’m burying the lede here, then let me stop immediately. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, Patrick Melrose is a very strong limited series. But this may be Benedict Cumberbatch’s finest performance yet. Let the awards fall where they may, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better performance on television or film this year.

The first hour begs the question, “Why do I care about this spoiled brat and his daddy issues?”

The second hour answers that question in exceedingly dark and troubling ways. We explore Patrick’s familial relationships through a series of flashbacks. While the second episode (“Never Mind”) is actually based on the first novel in Edward St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical series, it works much better coming second. We need to see the incredible mess Patrick made of his life first. That makes the “why” so much more powerful.

Cumberbatch’s towering performance receives stellar (of course) support from the great Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing his troubled parents. Weaving’s menacing, nearly demonic, presence dominates the flashback-heavy second episode. I suspect many will complain that Weaving’s portrayal falls in the one-note range. I’m reserving judgement until we begin to peel back the layers of that odious onion. Leigh is simply fantastic in her role as Patrick’s alcoholic and vaguely complacent mother. It may be completely in Leigh’s wheelhouse to play a boozy socialite burying secrets, but that doesn’t mean she’s not fantastic doing it. She’s a vastly underrated actress, and I’m rooting for extensive awards recognition for her.

Patrick Melrose won’t suit everyone’s taste. It’s a very dark and very darkly funny piece of art that is probably the definition of an acquired taste. But one could do far worse than Benedict Cumberbatch as your guide through the intense series. His performance is a towering achievement, bringing to light sides of the actor we’ve never seen. Raise a glass (or six) to him.

Patrick Melrose premieres Saturday, May 12, on Showtime.