With the exception of the fourth installment, each of the Melrose novels takes place in a single day, a structure that lends itself neatly to episodic television. Nicholls switches the order of the first two books so that the miniseries starts with Bad News, in which a heroin-addled, 20-something Patrick is informed that his father has died, and is summoned to New York to pick up the late David Melrose’s ashes. It’s an effective trick that prolongs the inevitable question as to why Patrick is so hopelessly lost and miserably self-anesthetizing. Then, in the second episode—set at one of the Melrose family homes in the south of France when Patrick is a child—we find out.
Adapting the Melrosiad is a passion project for Cumberbatch, who once described Patrick alongside Hamlet as the two roles he desperately wanted to play. The books are somehow both intensely honest (writing them seems to have been a relatively therapeutic way for St. Aubyn to exorcise his familial demons) and darkly satirical, lampooning the strangeness of the English upper classes with execution that only an insider could manage. The miniseries, arriving into a culture that typically has little sympathy for such crystallized white male privilege, delves deeply into the trauma that has fragmented Patrick’s mind in such brutal fashion. In the first episode, he’s boorish, entitled, and wafting catastrophe like cologne, but the show makes clear that these are just symptoms of the various ills that afflict him: abuse, addiction, and aristocracy.
“Bad News” feels at times like an unholy fusion of Evelyn Waugh and Hunter S. Thompson. Patrick flies to New York, checks into his regular Central Park–adjacent suite, promises himself out loud that he won’t take drugs, and then embarks on a bender only previously emulated by Keith Richards during the Exile on Main Street era. Berger conveys Patrick’s frightening mental decline in sharp color with rapid cuts between shots. But there’s exquisite comedy in his careless one-liners, with Cumberbatch wrapping Patrick’s morbid humor around himself like a protective coat. In one scene, when Patrick opens his father’s coffin, he puts on an affectedly chirpy voice and says, “It’s just what I wanted! You shouldn’t have.”
The second episode, “Never Mind,” depicts the first book in the series, and the one in which St. Aubyn got to the crux of what happened to him. David Melrose, played in radiantly sadistic form by Hugo Weaving, lives a sybaritic lifestyle in France in a house bought with his wife’s money. Eleanor Melrose (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an American heiress whose ugly marriage seems to have driven her into a cotton-wool cloud of inebriation. She’s occasionally gentle and loving to her son, young Patrick (played magnificently by the newcomer Sebastian Maltz), but primarily weak and selfish. Nicholls allows Eleanor flashes of St. Aubyn’s mordant wit: Describing the family home to a guest, she says, “We were going to turn it into a house for alcoholics. Which, in a sense, we did.”