Benedict Cumberbatch Stars in Netflix Thriller

There are two different shows contained within Netflix’s Eric. One is a harrowing portrait of Vincent Anderson (Benedict Cumberbatch), sent into a self-destructive tailspin by the disappearance of his nine-year-old son (Ivan Howe’s Edgar). The other is a sprawling drama set around New York City’s underclass, the poor and Black and queer communities persecuted by greedy politicians and violent cops.

The miniseries’ attempt to merge them is a self-consciously noble one — Eric will not miss the forest of social injustice for the tree of a single missing white kid, and has characters express their intentions accordingly. But in execution, these throughlines do not enhance each other so much as get in each other’s way, until the entire thing feels like less than the sum of its prestige-y parts.


The Bottom Line

A self-consciously noble failure.

Airdate: Thursday, May 30 (Netflix)
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, McKinley Belcher III, Gaby Hoffman, Dan Fogler, Clarke Peters, Ivan Howe, Bamar Kane, Adepero Oduye
Creator: Abi Morgan

Vincent’s story emerges first, and it’s equal parts off-putting and devastating. As created by Abi Morgan (The Hour), he is an alcoholic narcissist who spends his days picking fights with his colleagues on Good Day Sunshine, a Sesame Street-style kids program, and his evenings screaming at his wife Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann, heartbreaking in an underwritten part). So repellent is he that even the tragedy of Edgar’s absence cannot soften him: “How do you have everything that you have going on in your life, and you still make people struggle to find basic human sympathy for you?” marvels his harried creative partner (Dan Fogler).

In fact, the longer Edgar stays gone, the more Vincent falls apart. His drinking intensifies, then progresses to hard drug use. His behavior grows more erratic. He starts to hallucinate Eric, a fuzzy blue-and-orange monster that Edgar had drawn and talked about, and grows increasingly convinced that getting an Eric puppet on Good Day Sunshine might be the only way to bring Edgar back.

The role is heavy on the kind of showboating — screaming, sobbing, crawling around in the muck — that makes for splashy Emmy reels. But it’s frustratingly light in terms of intimate character development. Eric‘s explanation for Vincent’s psychological damage is so vague that you might mistake it for another of the plot’s mysteries; its resolution, meanwhile, rings false in its sugarcoated simplicity.

Luckily for Edgar, Vincent’s Eric-related strategy isn’t the only one for recovering him. Overseeing the case for the NYPD is Michael (McKinley Belcher III, quietly magnetic), a closeted Black detective struggling to balance his caseload with his care for his AIDS-afflicted partner (Mark Gillis). His patient investigation snakes up to the tony offices of the moneyed elite, and down into the sewers where unhoused, addicted and otherwise beleaguered souls seek shelter. He begins digging for links between Edgar and Marlon, a 14-year-old Black kid who vanished from the same neighborhood some months earlier — and then between both boys and The Lux, a shady nightclub that Eric treats as the only bar in all of New York City.

Marlon’s mother Cecile (a criminally underused Adepero Oduye) serves as the grieving angel on Eric‘s shoulder, pointing out time and time again that her son never got a fraction of the attention that Edgar has. She pressures anyone who might listen to do better, and to its credit, Eric makes every effort. Its storylines run down a veritable checklist of societal ills: racism, classism, homophobia, misogyny, police brutality, government corruption. They’re brought to life on sets that look expansive and expensive, painstakingly coated in era-appropriate grime and captured with a soft ’80s graininess by director Lucy Forbes (This Is Going to Hurt). Even its iffiest flourish, Eric himself, speaks to a work determined to avoid the easy and obvious route.

But amid these lofty ideals, Eric loses sight of the fundamentals. It stretches a feature film’s worth of plot over six languorous hours, draining them of suspense; Vincent’s spiral grows particularly tedious in its repetition. With all that time, it still pushes around its characters like game pieces collecting points on a board, rather than individuals worth exploring in their psychological complexity.

At times, the city-in-crisis material plays like a ham-fisted attempt to add gravitas to the salacious mystery of a lost boy and his unhinged, possibly abusive father. Elsewhere, Victor’s histrionic spiral looks like the Trojan horse for a drier excavation of systemic institutional rot. Rarely do the two halves appear to be in conversation with each other, including when Cassie is literally in conversation with Cecile. There are worse crimes for a series to commit than an overabundance of ambition. But a disappointing show is a disappointing show. Even when you’re getting two for the price of one.

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