3.5 out of 5 stars

“Edgar, if you’re watching this, I’m so sorry, buddy. Just come home, okay? Prove to all these ladies and gentlemen of the press that you’re not dead.” Vincent Anderson (Benedict Cumberbatch) says this directly to the camera in the opening scene, establishing the premise of Eric, a Netflix limited series. While ambitious in its storytelling, drawing viewers down a rabbit hole of conspiracy with strong performances, it ultimately delivers underwhelming resolutions that fail to live up to its intriguing set-up.

It’s the 1980s in New York City and a nine-year-old boy named Edgar (Ivan Morris Howe) has gone missing. His father, Vincent, a misanthropic and bibulous puppeteer, becomes fixated on creating a puppet named Eric to bring his son home. Meanwhile, his mother, Cassie (Gabby Hoffmann), works with detectives to uncover what happened the day he vanished.

Written by Abi Morgan, produced by Holly Pullinger, and directed by Lucy Forbes, the series shows promise already. Morgan’s resumé demonstrates a talent for imbuing character-driven dramas. Her past credits include Suffragette (2015), The Invisible Woman (2013), and River (2015). The latter series is familiar territory for Morgan, as both focus on psychologically haunted protagonists. However, with Eric, she aims to delve deeper into the mystery genre, supplementing the story with social commentary.

In its set-up, the series excels. The first episode depicts the 48 hours leading up to Edgar’s disappearance, introducing suspects as blatantly as orange cones on the pavement. Many of these suspects, predominantly male, live close to Edgar. As he travels between his parents’ apartment and his school, Edgar encounters several men who interact with him: one pats him on the head, while others stare at him from a distance.

During this sequence, the camera cleverly follows Edgar, arresting viewers’ suspicions by gathering these suspects in the background. Cinematographer Benedict Spence captures the essence of a city evoking vice and corruption, a well-chosen backdrop for its subject matter. Throughout, the shots of overflowing garbage bags piled high on street corners and graffiti plastered liberally across walls in the background reflect an urban playground screaming decay and danger.

It must be said that this setting seems familiar, as it’s starkly reminiscent of Gotham City as depicted in Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019). Like Arthur Fleck in that movie, the squalid ’80s backdrop mirrors the degradation of Vincent’s mental state in Eric as he descends into misanthropic madness caused by grief and confusion. Another setting that contemplates this harrowing depiction is the subway, where homeless people wander like lost souls in an inferno. Here, trash fires light the darkness and women sit on ripped sofas, nursing crying infants while smoking crystal meth. 

As the series works to untangle the mystery of Edgar’s disappearance, incriminating evidence unfolds from every angle. Almost every male character central to the story except for Vincent has either a criminal history or hides his sexuality from the world, this creates variable suspects in viewers’ minds. Even the lead detective, Michael Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III), who is eager to find Edgar and solve the cases of other missing boys, suggesting a criminal pattern, shares secrets similar to those of the suspects he is investigating.

In the same city, another boy had gone missing 11 months earlier, but his case didn’t receive the same media exposure as Edgar’s. While Morgan’s script is initially captivating, some viewers may find that the narrative becomes more preoccupied with subplots containing social commentary.

“Don’t you want to live in a world where your kid can walk to school, and you can still trust that they’ll come home safe? Vincent asks a reporter in frustration after being questioned about his parenting. “Shouldn’t that be a basic right?”

The series aims to capture the zeitgeist of 1980s parenting, where adults let their children roam freely for fear of being labelled helicopter parents. A whole host of societal issues—mental illness, injustice, alcoholism, neglect, paedophilia, xenophobia, and sex trafficking, to name a few—are woven into the narrative. This is an attempt to subvert the audience’s expectations through the mystery’s reveal. Some viewers will likely find it overwhelming and distracting from the simpler plot elements. Conversely, others might appreciate the added complexity, which intentionally reflects the social inequalities familiar to a 21st-century audience.

Nevertheless, the talented cast gels well with Morgan’s script and the production. In Cumberbatch’s hands, it often feels like Vincent is carrying around trauma and guilt, challenging viewers to completely dismiss him as merely ignorant, sardonic, or insane. Almost everything we see about him is incriminating and unlikeable. The police suspect that the cut on his forehead on the day his son disappeared wasn’t caused by any accident or similar alibi.

He’s embroiled in a creative power struggle with his business partner Lennie (Dan Fogler) over the direction of ‘Good Day Sunshine’, the children’s puppet show they created together. His tumultuous marriage is on the rocks, characterised by vicious arguments that end in profanities and shattered glass. He’s also being pursued by a mental manifestation of Eric, the gigantic, fluffy, blue puppet who follows him around hurling self-loathing criticisms over his shoulder. Yet Cumberbatch makes space for a redemptive moment or two, which some may find arrives too late. Ultimately, it’s up to viewers to see the complexity beyond the substance-abusing parent who talks to thin air and occasionally fights himself—quite literally.

Gabby Hoffman plays the concerned mother very well, particularly in some arresting scenes throughout the series. However, her character arc isn’t as complex or ambiguous as Vincent’s or Detective Ledroit’s. In one notable scene, she hands out flyers at a tube station, hoping to find a clue about Edgar’s whereabouts. Despite her efforts, most people ignore or bump into her without a second glance. Yet, a glimmer of hope pierces the scene when she spots someone in the crowd wearing Edgar’s jacket. But despite Hoffman’s powerful performance in the early episodes, the emotional impact of Cassie’s search for Edgar is frequently undermined by the overshadowing depth and complexity of Vincent’s and Ledroit’s storylines.

Not unlike Vincent, the detective is at odds with his identity in a city that he finds corrupt. However, he’s as much a part of this grimy system as the mounds of garbage bags that litter the streets. One of the defining characteristics of the series lies in this sort of uncertainty. Alongside Vincent’s mental struggle with his imaginary puppet, we also follow Ledroit as he battles police corruption to find the missing boys. This portrays him as an unlikely hero who must step out of the darkness and push his anguish aside, and Belcher has a good grasp of Ledroit. In this sense, the acting lends a considerable debt to the plot, as the pacing isn’t necessarily at fault when some may experience mixed feelings by the finale.

Ultimately, Eric is still highly enjoyable, especially in the opening episodes, as it explores deeply complex questions about crime, parenting and an abused justice system. However, expectations veer towards the sentimental just before the credits hit.

UK • USA | 2024 | 6 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Abi Morgan.
director: Lucy Forbes.
starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Gabby Hoffmann, Dan Fogler, McKinley Belcher III & Ivan Morris Howe.