Eric review: Benedict Cumberbatch excels as a weirdo in dark, misanthropic missing-child drama

Netflix mystery stars ‘Sherlock’ actor as a puppeteer in Eighties New York whose life unravels when his son disappears

Nick Hilton
Thursday 30 May 2024 08:35 BST
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Netflix's Eric trailer

New York in the 1980s: a city of bad clothes, bad haircuts, and bad vibes. With steam hissing out of vents, buildings caked in a century of brown scum, and the subway ridden by the despairing and deranged, it is the perfect backdrop to Eric, a new Netflix drama about a child lost amid the city’s down-and-outs.

Vincent (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a puppeteer and the lead creative on a successful Sesame Street-style children’s TV show, Good Day Sunshine. When his nine-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Morris Howe) disappears on his way to school, Vincent’s entire world unravels. His precarious relationship with his wife, Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann), disintegrates, a fragile truce with his wealthy parents descends into all-out war, and Vincent slips back into substance abuse. Accompanying Vincent on this journey into psychic meltdown is Eric, a large, foul-mouthed and, crucially, imaginary puppet that Vincent is building, based on Edgar’s specs. “The real monsters ain’t under the bed,” Eric tells Vincent, as he appears for the first time in his periphery. “Let’s go find your f***ing kid.”

Eric is the brainchild of British writer Abi Morgan, whose works have veered from the commercial (Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, or another Meryl Streep vehicle, Suffragette) to something much edgier, such as Steve McQueen’s Shame or the 2004 thriller Sex Traffic. Those latter projects provide a better tonal guide to Eric. Even though the shadow of Big Bird hangs over the series like a, you know, big bird, there is a dark, misanthropic streak to proceedings. Much of the action takes place in New York’s murky, subterranean underworld, but the real sewer runs through the establishment. This is a depraved world, where even that most innocent of things – a children’s TV character – has to spit feathers to right wrongs.

At the heart of this is Cumberbatch’s Vincent. Despite a strange PR campaign a decade ago – when Cumberbatch was cast in awards-baiting films like The Imitation Game, August: Osage County and The Current War, as well as becoming the superhero, Doctor Strange – Cumberbatch is at his best when playing weirdos. The creepy guest in Atonement, a self-loathing drunk in Patrick Melrose, a volatile cowpoke in The Power of the Dog. Vincent is in that vein: an angry, unlikeable, drug-addled misfit, who embarks on a search for Edgar in spite of his personal limitations. “Did anyone ever tell you you’re an a**hole?” Vincent asks his imaginary friend, Eric. It is a question that almost any character in the narrative could turn on Vincent. At times the performance runs the risk of being too charmless, but Cumberbatch keeps Vincent just the right side of slippery.

Reflected against this central role, McKinley Belcher III’s detective, Ledroit, is not quite slippery enough. The flaws of Vincent and his adulterous wife Cassie are well-drawn; Ledroit is simply a tool to move the plot along. It is symptomatic of Eric’s fundamental imbalance. Morgan and Co have great fun with the magical realism of Vincent and Eric, slaloming between genres. One minute the show seems influenced by David Fincher’s Zodiac, the next by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. But the procedural element – the exposure of corruption within the NYPD and council, as well child murder, abduction and sexual abuse – gets lost in this kaleidoscope. The fate of Edgar becomes increasingly irrelevant to the drama, as though the disappearance has served its function once Vincent’s tattered psyche takes centre stage.

As a missing-person drama, it is not in the same league as Gone Girl or Secret in Their Eyes. Yet that is only a thread of what Eric is doing. “They’re asking you to come up with a new puppet,” Cassie tells her husband, “not War and Peace.” Yet Eric has far more to say about grief, trauma and creativity when the hulking blue monster is on screen. It is a mystery with a twist, where the twist is more interesting than the mystery. You don’t drink the cocktail for the garnish, but that doesn’t stop it adding some, much-needed, zest.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in