Netflix’s Eric TV show: Benedict Cumberbatch says our institutions are ‘still in crisis’

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Eric is on Netflix from May 30.
Eric is on Netflix from May 30. Credit: Ludovic Robert/Netflix/Ludovic Robert/Netflix

When Gaby Hoffmann walked onto the Eric set for the first time, she started crying.

The set wasn’t anything extraordinary in its concept. It was the apartment her and Benedict Cumberbatch’s characters lived in. It had a teak wardrobe in the hallway, wall sconces and shelves filled with the detritus of life.

Hoffmann grew up in Manhattan in the 1980s and the world of Eric, which takes place at the same time and place, was evocative for the New York native.

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“It was incredibly vivid,” Hoffmann told The Nightly. “It brought me back in such a visceral way. They just did such a beautiful job recreating the city, not just visually but energetically. I really felt like I was walking back into my childhood.”

Sometimes when people talk about TV shows and movies, they’ll say, insert-place-here was another character in the ensemble, as they did about New York and Sex and the City. New York, more than anywhere else, seems to have an identity so strong that the feel and vibe of a project changes for being set in it.

Eric is on Netflix from May 30.
Gaby Hoffman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Eric. Credit: Ludovic Robert/Netflix

On the surface, Eric is a miniseries about puppeteer Vincent (Cumberbatch) and his wife Cassie (Hoffmann) whose nine-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Morris Howe) goes missing, and the personal breakdowns that emanate from such a traumatic event.

But scratch a tad deeper and Eric comes to be a story about New York, and more widely, about all of us.

“The city is a very central character,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s a sort of magnification of all the personal dramas in the sense that is it about a time in its history, where outside the sixties and seventies, and all those things that were pushing towards a greater ideal, and a potential for change, manifested in the birth of modern greed.

“And it hasn’t really stopped. We’re 40 years into it and we’re still in a crisis. It’s different now – it’s homogenised, it’s megalithic corporations, it’s digitised tech, it’s fentanyl instead of crack.

“But there’s still homelessness, there’s still racism, there’s still sexism, there’s still marital collapse, there’s still societal collapse, there’s still corruption in institutions.”

New York comes to stand in for Cumberbatch’s character, Vincent, whose goes into downward spiral in the aftermath of Edgar’s disappearance – and vice versa. The New York in Eric is one of inequality, where a white missing child is more important than a black missing child. It’s chillingly familiar.

Eric is on Netflix from May 30.
Eric is a missing child story, but it’s really about the wider tapestry of a city. Credit: Ludovic Robert/Netflix

Cumberbatch said he was initially nervous to be involved as an English actor working with an English writer and English director in telling this very New York story. But he felt the show’s authenticity, and what the series was able to recreate made him feel as if he lived it.

That English writer is Abi Morgan, a renowned scribe whose screen credits include The Hour, The Iron Lady, Suffragette and Shame. You can look to Shame as a film whose New York setting was essential to its energy, but was also made by an English director (Steve McQueen) and starred an Irish-German actor (Michael Fassbender) and an English one (Carey Mulligan).

Morgan knows how to capture on page the vibe of a city – even one that’s not hers. Cumberbatch says there’s profundity in her work and her imagination.

“I’ve been coming back and forth to New York for 30 years,” Morgan said. “One of the first times I came here was when I was 18 years old in the mid-eighties. It was a fascinating period and so I always like I wanted to come back here. I wrote Shame in 2011 and I always loved writing about that world at that time.”

Morgan said there was something specific about the 1980s that had resonance for her, not just what was going on in New York but also in the UK. “There were lots of similarities for me within London, but I just loved the American TV shows and films of that era.

“It felt fun to go on a vacation somewhere else for a while and write somewhere else for a while.”

Eric is on Netflix from May 30.
Gaby Hoffman grew up in NYC in the 1980s. Credit: Ludovic Robert/Netflix

Fun may not be the first word that comes to mind when it comes to Eric but there’s no doubt that Morgan and co has created a very detailed and heady world. Eric is not just a bleak portrait of what is, it’s also an argument for compassion, of how to maintain humanity in an unforgiving environment.

“Compassion is the key, right?” Hoffmann said, “Compassion leads to love and love leads to compassion. That’s what this show and, in my opinion, life is about. Vincent and Cassie are representative of this idea that our institutions are failing, whether it’s the institution of marriage, family or the government and the police department.

“And in that failure, our children are suffering, literally and metaphorically.”

Cumberbatch echoed Hoffmann’s point, and emphasised that those issues are not encased in a 1980s bubble.

“This is all, sadly, still pertinent today,” he added.

Eric is on Netflix from May 30

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