Benedict Cumberbatch, this generation's English Actor — most people know him as Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Strange, but he plays Shakespeare too — is the star of "Patrick Melrose," a highly satisfying adaptation of five semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Premiering Saturday on Showtime, it is a tale — comical, harrowing, comically harrowing, harrowingly comical — of life among the British upper classes and their hopeful attendants, and more particularly of Patrick, his childhood trauma, subsequent addictions, attractions and attempts not to become like the people who made him.
In this faithful if necessarily streamlined translation by screenwriter David Nicholls, whose earlier literary adaptations include "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," "Great Expectations" and "Far From the Madding Crowd" — each book gets its own hour, which is little enough time to put a novel, even a short one, on-screen. And yet every episode feels eventful without seeming hurried. The compression does tend to make some thematic points obvious and some characters more overtly ridiculous or awful than they appear in the books, where St. Aubyn spends time in many different heads, and conversations spool out over pages.
The novels proceed chronologically, beginning in 1967, with Patrick as a small boy briefly happy on his parents' estate in the south of France, but the miniseries flips the order, and starts with the second book, "Bad News." It opens in London in 1982 as Patrick, now in his early twenties, happily receives, by crackling transatlantic phone call, news of his father's death in New York, just as he has shot some heroin. (His drug use is voracious and catholic.)
This transposition has the benefit of getting Cumberbatch in at the beginning of the series and also of starting things off with a mystery — how did we get here? — and a bang, very much as if the episode had been shot from a cannon. Brief, blurry glimpses of Patrick's 1967 self let us know that something bad happened back there.
The books are distinguished by St. Aubyn's casually elegant prose — dry in attitude, liquid to the ear — but each volume has a slightly different swing, and the series, directed by Edward Berger, shifts tone accordingly. (Such is the case at least with the three episodes out of five available for review.) "Bad News," in which Patrick comes to Manhattan to pick up the remains of his hated father and suffers alternately from drugs and a lack of drugs, is hectic and hallucinatory, marked by abrupt shifts in tone and volume and speed, depending on which narcotic is or isn't kicking in, and in what sort of situations Patrick is trying to survive (at a club with his father's friends, under a Central Park bridge drug dealer, alone with the many voices in his head).
"Never Mind" has a bucolic luxuriousness that plays against the darkness of its subject matter. We meet young Patrick and his parents — father David (Hugo Weaving), a cruel snobbish serial failure ("because to have tried and actually achieved something would have shown vulgar ambition," says Patrick), living large on the money of wife Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a self-medicating American heiress.
The third episode, "Some Hope," is shot with a brittle naturalism: Patrick sober for the moment, but rejecting any organized support systems as cultish, attends a posh birthday party with his best and possibly only friend, Johnny (Prasanna Puwanarajah), where characters from the earlier books all turn up and Princess Margaret (Harriet Walter) is a guest.
The series, which features notable turns by Indira Varma, Holliday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Allison Williams, John Standing and Blythe Danner among its large ensemble, is beautifully cast with actors who can suggest worlds in a few strokes. Even a cab driver with two lines (Asheq Akhtar) makes a lasting impression.
Cumberbatch, 41, portrays Patrick, sour and sweet, across a range of some 20 years. (Sebastian Maltz plays him as a boy.) It is not so much that the actor can seem young or old as that he seems to be neither — not young, not old, not (for that matter) middle-aged. With his wide-set quizzical eyes, soft mouth and sharp cheekbones, he is physically too singular to disappear entirely into his parts; and yet at the same time he can seem curiously amorphous, unformed, clay to mold any which way.
Patrick is an antihero, dangerous and self-destructive in ways familiar to 21st century TV drama; but he is also a straight-up hero, trying to overcome his worse nature, handed down from his parents. Compulsively clever, charming when he wants to be, more sensitive than his peers to the shallowness of privilege, he wants to put his addictions, infidelities and infelicities behind him and eventually to reckon with the trauma that made him the man and mess he is. Taken together in its melded parts, this is a story about getting hurt, getting better, getting worse, getting better, worse, better, worse and maybe better again. And everybody knows how that goes.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)