Benedict Cumberbatch Is Exceptional as a Puppeteer Searching for His Missing Son in Engrossing Miniseries 'Eric'

Don’t be surprised if awards come Benedict Cumberbatch’s way for this Netflix six-parter that features a seven-foot muppet and a dive into corruption.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 30, 2024

In the space of a mere two days to close out May, two tales of two puppeteers join the streaming ranks. Eric is pure fiction, but it's impossible not to think about Jim Henson while watching it, regardless of whether you also have a small-screen date with Jim Henson Idea Man. Creator and writer Abi Morgan — who has previously penned the likes of Shame, The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman, Suffragette, River and The Split — puts a Henson-esque figure with his own hit TV show for kids at the core of her six-part miniseries. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar) in a performance that's bound to receive awards attention, the bearded and lanky Vincent Anderson even physically resembles the man behind The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

As evident to everyone watching Eric from Thursday, May 30 on Netflix, its protagonist definitely isn't Henson. Firstly, Anderson is an abusive alcoholic. Secondly, his nine-year-old son Edgar (debutant Ivan Morris Howe) goes missing one morning on his walk to school, which he was supposed to accompany him on as his main contribution to fatherhood. And thirdly, the eponymous Eric is a seven-foot-tall monster muppet who his boy scribbled to life on the page and then starts following Vincent as his mental health struggles after Edgar disappears. But binge-viewing your way through Eric — and it is engrossingly bingeable — means being unable to shake the feeling that Morgan pondered "what if?" about Henson in all of the above scenarios.

As a series, the 1985-set Eric is as ambitious as it is expertly acted; neither daring in general nor absorbing portrayals are lacking. The exceptional Cumberbatch sits at the crux of both as Eric asks another "what if?": what if someone experiencing the terror of their child going AWOL wasn't at their best before their life is turned upside down, because heartbreak and horror don't solely blight pictures of perfection? There's force behind his work as Vincent by design, with the audience asked to feel every ounce of his agony and the chaos he wreaks. Cumberbatch finds haunting nuance in the part, too, as subtlety simmers in every key portrayal — from Howe, Gaby Hoffmann (C'mon C'mon) as Edgar's mother and McKinley Belcher III (One Piece) as the cop on the case through to Clarke Peters (Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody) as a neighbour, Bamar Kane (Io Capitano) as an unhoused street artist and Adepero Oduye (Five Days at Memorial) as another mum looking for her lost boy.

Eric is also instantly involving and deeply layered as it queries how a bright world can turn unkind, cruel and corrupt. It's an ordinary day when Edgar trundles out his New York City door alone, and routine even in the fact that Vincent and Hoffman's Cassie have been fighting. With the series starting with Edgar's parents fronting the media flanked by police, pleading for their son to come home — Vincent speaks directly to him through the camera — viewers know what's in store before the boy doesn't arrive at class. Morgan and director Lucy Forbes (This Is Going to Hurt), who helms the entire miniseries with poise, can't ever be accused of lacing their tale with inevitability, however. Rather, pain and poignancy are Eric's constants.

Swiftly, the Anderson family is plunged into crisis. As he frays visibly and publicly, the already-erratic and egotistical Vincent still can't tear himself away from work on Good Day Sunshine. The show, plus conjuring imaginary friends to life with felt, was the primary glue between the Anderson men (Edgar's bedroom overflows with sketches that resemble his dad's). Vincent isn't merely distracting himself by keeping busy or clinging to something that bonded him with his kid; he becomes obsessed with turning Eric into his show's newest character. At home, their marriage disintegrating, Cassie is certain that reward money from her husband's rich parents (The Big Cigar's John Doman and Anatomy of a Scandal's Phoebe Nicholls), who he's estranged from, will help rustle up information on her son's whereabouts.

One of the bold choices that Morgan makes is not just to take a setup that could've fuelled the series by itself — abduction thrillers are their own genre — and add a complicated character study complete with a furry pal manifesting as a man's guilt, regret and sorrow; she also ensures that Eric functions as a portrait of 80s New York, with graffiti and garbage a consistent sight, and the city's homeless population a frequent topic of discussion. Here, enter NYPD detective Michael Ledroit (Belcher III), who is investigating while handling his own baggage. He's still trying to find another disappeared boy from 11 months ago, 14-year-old Marlon (Bence Orere, another newcomer), but with far less support because the child is Black. Ledroit is also a closeted gay Black man in a workplace and at a time that's hardly welcoming, and with a partner (Mark Gillis, Hollyoaks) dying of AIDS-related illness.

Accordingly, Eric is a snapshot of a crumbling family, and of a man facing his worst nightmare and mental deterioration in tandem; a missing-person procedural about two vanished boys and the dissimilar attitudes to bringing them home; and a wander through the Big Apple in a distinctive period, and through the inequality engrained in everything from race and class to sexuality and power with those bearing its brunt. Its namesake may seem as if he could've strolled out of Monsters, Inc., albeit with a gruff voice and no aversion to swearing — and "be good, be kind, be brave, be different" might be Good Day Sunshine's motto — but this is always a tale of darkness, pain and the reality that sunny days sweeping the clouds away are so rare that they need to be clung to.

In a busy year for childhood buddies on-screen, Eric isn't optimistic fantasy IF or dull horror film Imaginary, though. It also isn't 2018's terrible adult puppet flick The Happytime Murders, which had a Henson pedigree: Brian, son of Jim, plus director of both The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, helmed it. When it swings through clubs where sex sells, examines the impact of gentrification, and unpacks the dishonesty and violence that can colour the thin blue line and the institutions behind it to the detriment of a city, The Deuce and The Wire both appear to be influences (Peters and Doman's supporting parts assist). Puppets don't nest one inside the other, but this series with one at its centre repeatedly proves the TV equivalent of a matryoshka doll.

Check out the trailer for Eric below:

Eric streams via Netflix from Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Published on May 30, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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