There is something called the Golden Age of television. Well, many things, because there is more than one period which is so defined. The most recent is from the early 2000s or so, with shows like The Sopranos (which first aired in 1999), Six Feet Under (2001), The Wire (2002), Deadwood (2004), Mad Men (2007), Breaking Bad (2008), and Game of Thrones (2011).
There’s no dispute about this; television has been truly exceptional for nearly two decades, and every Hollywood movie star worth their golden statuette has made the successful transition to the small screen. There seemed to be a bit of a slump in the past three or four years, but 2018/2019 is back with a vengeance.
Patrick Melrose is a perfect example.
You can look at all its Emmy nominations (five), and its BAFTA wins for Best Mini-Series and Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch). You can look at its ratings and reviews. The best thing you can do this month is watch it; it’s utterly brilliant, old bean.
Cumberbatch (known by so many other ridiculous names but everyone immediately knows who you’re talking about) plays the Patrick Melrose of the title. Episode 1 opens the story in 1982, in the decade of narcotic indulgence. Well, one of them anyway.
Patrick is a junkie of monumental proportions with the wealth to support his habits in grand style, which is initially played slightly for laughs – involuntary, shocked laughs – as he travels to New York after the death of his father.
There is, however, nothing funny about drug addiction, and it is not glamourised here. The writing is sharp and witty and a joy to hear (thank you, David Nicholls), but there are many darker issues that shaped Patrick the child and Patrick the adult.
Episode 2 is devoted almost entirely to the lad’s childhood experiences with his dreadful father (Hugo Weaving) and equally awful negligent mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and each of the three following episodes explore the repercussions over the decades.
The British upper class is painted in a dim light with pathos and no mercy, and this approach, coupled with Cumberbatch’s performance, which is nothing short of memerising, makes this series – based on Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books – outstanding. It cannot be praised highly enough.
The BAFTA was the first for the highly awarded and prolific Cumberbatch – eighth time lucky – and together with Hamlet, he calls Patrick Melrose one of “only two roles I’d ever bucket-listed.” He’d like you to read the books too, please.
If you’re already a fan, you’re going to love this, even if it’s difficult to watch at times, so tragic is Patrick; if not, you’ll surely be converted to the fan camp by Cumberbatch’s incredible accomplishment.
A perfectly contained limited series of five episodes, continuing Patrick’s story seems like overkill but as is often the case, when something is a smash hit, producers look for a way to milk the cash cow. There are active talks about a second season, but thankfully this seems to be resting on St Aubyn’s decision.