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'Eric' series review: Benedict Cumberbatch creates a monster in Netflix psychological drama

Benedict Cumberbatch sitting next to a big, blue monster

Good day to all you sunshines, enjoy it while you can because dark clouds will soon appear to ruin your day. Today's depressing weather forecast is brought to you by Eric, the new psychological drama miniseries set in trash-filled New York City in the 1980s. We find ourselves in the company of Vincent Anderson (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-aged puppeteer and creator of the popular kids' show 'Good Day Sunshine'. While being considered ''a creative genius'' and spreading joy and laughter to kids around the nation through TV screens, Vincent's marriage with his wife Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann) is an unhappy one and full of arguing, and his relationship with their nine-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Howe) is questionable at best due to Vincent's inconsiderate personality and use of substances.

One fateful morning when Vincent and Cassie engage in yet another verbal fight and he therefore doesn't walk Edgar to school, Edgar goes missing before reaching the schoolyard. Detective Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III) is tasked with the investigation, with some of his first suspects including Vincent, the family's neighbour George (Clarke Peters), Vincent's colleague Lennie (Dan Fogler) and local convicted criminal Gator (Wade Allain-Marcus). Cassie tries to find Edgar on her own whilst Vincent becomes more and more dependant on a mixture of substances, effectively ending the marriage and becoming a liability for the show, before he gets the idea of creating a new monster puppet named Eric based on Edgar's drawings, hoping that he'll see Eric and come back home. Soon enough, an imaginary Eric also starts to follow and talk to Vincent.

From there on, the series finds a lot of other threads to explore, whether that's where Vincent might've got his not-so-great parenting skills from, Cassie's life away from her family, Ledroit's personal life, his corrupt and bigoted workplace that shows that not much has changed in regard to NYPD in the last 40 years, systemic racism, the AIDS epidemic or the homelessness crisis and how politicians are involved in it. Now that certainly seems like something that you'd then describe as ''too much, too hectic'' in most reviews but the impressive thing is that writer Abi Morgan handles most of that weight with grace and an excellent sense of pace. The success of all of those storylines and side quests vary but none of them are terribly written, with some of them developing and morphing pretty expertly too, Vincent and Cassie's in particular.

Much of that is because Morgan, director Lucy Forbes and the rest mostly nail the two important things, which are time and place. The people feel real, situations feel real, conflicts feel real, even the artifice of the city looks, smells and sounds feel like a real place where all these things can coexist. One slight quibble about it is that the show's dialogue, dark humour and Cumberbatch do carry a certain kind of British sensibility, which makes you somewhat question why New York City ended up being the setting. These problems and emotions that characters have aren't exclusive to neither NYC nor America so the wordplay and Cumberbatch wouldn't be overly eccentric either if the series was set somewhere else.

But again, that's a minor quibble when the story elements and actors are providing compelling drama during these six episodes. Cumberbatch, Hoffmann and Belcher as the three leads are able to carry and elevate scenes on their own. Cumberbatch mines a lot of complexity, arrogance and self-destruction as Vincent tries to rectify some of his mistakes—he really gets into the heart of the show that explores why a kid's art is populated with monsters and whether the real monsters that Vincent has created are his toxic patterns of behaviour and not his puppets. Elsewhere, Hoffmann's Cassie is balancing her brokenness with love that she doesn't seem to think was or is enough for her child, and Belcher is tasked with portraying Ledroit's genuine devotion as a detective and discretion as a gay man in a system that's fundamentally broken.

Peters, Fogler, Adepero Oduye as Cecile, another mom with a missing child, and other fine character actors in smaller parts also add to the show's already tasty recipe, which speaks to the terrific casting choices by casting directors Robert Sterne, Laura Rosenthal and Jodi Angstreich. Only the young Howe is a bit out of their depth when acting with adults, though that is to be expected of any child actor when a series is exploring such layered and dark topics that only adults can fully grasp. It's not a small part as Edgar is involved later either in past, present or future—press was asked to avoid talking about Edgar's arc, hence the vagueness—so those parts and scenes are definitely less impactful than the adult perspective as far as the story structure goes, but Morgan and Forbes keep things moving swiftly otherwise.

Still, Eric is oddly captivating throughout because the performances are so great, and it finds a lot of honesty in the characters and pops of colour in its messiness. The visualisation of Eric, the character, with a presumed blend of some practical costumes (designed by Suzanne Cove), puppetry and what seems like plenty of VFX (supervised by Jean-Louis Autret), really kicks the show up a notch because it also blends really well with the dark comedy that is always present. It's a small miracle that the show's tone works even for a single episode so it's even more delightful that it never falters when there are six of them. It's a tightrope walk between tragedy and absurdity, which is always entertaining to watch. Somehow the series even lands its emotional punches towards the end in a way that was again very messy, a little bit predictable, but rather moving and satisfying nonetheless.

No matter how old we are, it's never a bad idea to see if there are indeed monsters lurking under our beds. After all, it's always better to check so you can get rid of them if they're having a negative impact on you and your loved ones.

Smileys: Acting, tone, casting

Frowneys: Some issues with structure

Look where the sun doesn't shine.


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