Patrick Melrose. Showtime. Saturday, May 12, 9 p.m.
I've never read Edward St. Aubyn's five autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose, a supercilious, drug-addled exemplar extraordinaire of debauched Eurotrash, supposedly a thinly disguised of St. Albyn himself. But I know, all too well, the misery-literature genre (mis-lit, to tragically hip bibliophiles) from which St. Aubyn's books spring: memoirs of lives unnotable except for their squalor and suffering, almost inevitably inflicted—directly or indirectly—by parents. From the vomit-eating of A Child Called 'It' to the gay bashing of This Boy's Life, it's a hard-knock and high-profit world out there.
I'm sure these books have grand therapeutic effects for their authors. The benefits to readers, though, have always seemed less clear. Mis-lit works tend to be onslaughts of gaping wounds (both physical and emotional) and violent excretions of bodily fluids.
They rarely have actual plots—or perhaps they all have one plot, in which random horrible stuff keeps happening until it stops, usually after death, of the abuser or abusee. They are too horrifying to allow any real focus on characterization. And if there's any lesson to be learned, it's not much more than, "Well, you may have slightly overstated the case when you were 16 and compared your dad to Hitler for taking away the keys to the car for a week."
So it certainly goes with Patrick Melrose, Showtime's five-episode miniseries adaptation of the St. Albyn novels. And unless you have a mysterious fascination with ravaged children or junkies coming apart at the seams, this show is best avoided.
The plundered child and the wasted wastrel are, of course, different snapshots of the same person at different ages. Each Melrose episode is based on a different book, each of which takes place in a different year and with Melrose suffering from a different set of pathologies at the hands of his parents, a penniless British nobleman and his obscenely rich American wife.
The series' outlook is framed in the opening minutes, when a twenty-something Melrose (Benedict Cumberbatch) is telling a girlfriend he's just gotten a phone call that his father has just died and he has to go to New York to retrieve the corpse. "How did he die?" she asks. "Forgot to ask," replies Melrose in the same drily lacerating tone employed by the entire family, whether summoning one another to lunch or a ritual rape.
From there the show flashes forward and back endlessly over the same emotionally blasted terrain. A typical morning at the family mansion begins with Melrose's arid mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), quaffing bourbon at the breakfast table in one wing while his father, David, mechanically mates with a random mistress in the other. The rest of the day, fraught with buggery, thoughts of suicide, and the extravagantly existential punditry of the British upper class ("What one aims for is ennui," declares David during a dinnertime discussion of philosophy) is of a piece.
Patrick Melrose seems to have some vague idea that it's pillorying that class system, but the fact is that nearly all its characters, whether aristocrats or shop girls, affect an idle disregard for human decency. "Please don't take this the wrong way," asks one of Patrick's girlfriends upon hearing of his father's death, "but does this mean you're now fantastically rich?"
The worst thing about Patrick Melrose may be its callous waste of some fine performances, particularly that of Cumberbatch as a gibbering maniac holding himself together with bindings of heroin, martinis and speed. But Leigh's portrayal of the teetering-on-the-edge Eleanor, who spends her days writing checks to rescue anonymous Third World children rather than the one in her own home, is also notable, as is that of Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings films) as the inquisitional David.
How unfortunate that they couldn't have been done in service of something better than an elegantly costumed snuff film. If you really want to pursue mis-lit, I suggest looking for the book Limb-itless, which a character in one episode of Parks and Recreation disclosed to colleagues he was reading. It was about an armless, legless woman who swam the English Channel. "That's impossible," objected a co-worker. Replied the reader: "Oh, she drowned immediately. It's kind of a sad story."
P.S.: If there's anything at all to be said on behalf of Patrick Melrose, which I seriously doubt, it's the reintroduction of the bullshot, the stately vodka-and-bouillon cocktail of which newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen once wrote, "Don't ask for it west of Madison Avenue or the bartender will ring up Bellevue."