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What Netflix’s Strange Benedict Cumberbatch Crime Drama Eric Is Really Trying to Say

6 minute read

It sounds like fun to have the visionary puppeteer behind a beloved kids’ TV show for a father, but, well, you know what they say about the cobbler’s children. Vincent Anderson, one of the odd Netflix crime drama Eric’s two protagonists, is the creator of Good Day Sunshine, a Sesame Street-esque series that urges tots to “be good, be kind, be brave, be different.” The first sign he has a dark side is that he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch, interpreter of such tortured geniuses as Vincent van Gogh and Alan Turing. The second is that, while Vincent is capable of transforming his 9-year-old son Edgar’s (Ivan Morris Howe) everyday life into an adventure, he can also be mercilessly judgmental of the boy, holding him to impossibly high standards.

The morning after a particularly painful confrontation, busy bickering with his long-suffering wife (Gaby Hoffmann’s Cassie), Vincent instructs Edgar to walk to school by himself. On one hand, it’s only a few blocks away; on the other, this is 1980s New York, and danger is everywhere. So, of course, Cassie panics when she receives word that Edgar never made it to class. She spends all day trying to reach Vincent with the terrifying news, but he’s too busy waging war on the suits demanding changes to Good Day Sunshine to call her back. It’s only that night that the weight of his error falls on Vincent, who soon becomes obsessed with the idea that he can convince his son, who’s likely to be dead in a ditch, to come home by building Eric—a big, blue monster character that Edgar has been sketching—and putting him on TV. At the same time, Vincent starts hallucinating a gruff, foulmouthed, tough-love version of Eric who orders him to “get your sh-t together.” Our hero is also, you see, an alcoholic with a history of mental illness.

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Eric, left, stares down Benedict Cumberbatch's Vincent in EricLudovic Robert—Netflix

This is already a lot of premise, and a lot of pathos, for a single, six-episode series to take on. But it’s only the quirkier half of Eric, an unfocused, inconsistently written, and wonderfully acted show whose ambition is admirable and originality rare in an increasingly formulaic crime genre, even if creator Abi Morgan (The Hour) never manages to reconcile its tonal dissonance. What holds it all together, albeit like a plastic bag tearing under the heft of its contents, is the parallel Morgan draws between a world overpopulated with bad dads and a patriarchy—one that, in the city, encompasses the police, real estate, and politics—that is rotting from the inside. 

Eric’s other protagonist is a sturdy cog in this malfunctioning machine. The NYPD detective assigned to Edgar’s case, Mikey Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III of Ozark and We Own This City), has always been an outsider on the force. He’s not just Black, but also gay and closeted at work, spending off hours caring for a partner (Mark Gillis) who’s sick with AIDS at a time when a diagnosis is tantamount to a death sentence. He knows that the vice cops who frequent Lux, a club not far from the Andersons’ home where Mikey is also a familiar face, are crooked. And he’s frustrated about his lack of progress in tracking down Marlon (Bence Orere), a 14-year-old Black boy who disappeared and has since been forgotten by just about everyone except for Mikey and Marlon’s own persistent mother, Cecile (Adepero Oduye). It doesn’t escape either character’s notice that the media seems more eager to stoke panic around a missing white kid.

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McKinley Belcher III in EricLudovic Robert—Netflix

As Vincent embarks on his apparently quixotic quest and Cassie—the sole major female character, and one whose lack of definition is especially disappointing coming from the writer of Suffragette—seethes over her husband’s many failures, Mikey becomes convinced that Edgar’s and Marlon’s cases are connected. Considering the early presence of city government officials and Vincent’s own father, Robert (John Doman), a real-estate mogul whose son hates him for displacing unhoused people to build luxury condos, it’s hardly a surprise (though you might want to skip to the next paragraph if you’re ultra-sensitive about spoilers) when the racism, homophobia, and profit-motivated conspiracies run even deeper than he initially imagines. The metropolis of Good Day Sunshine is a gentle place where even the police puppet is friendly. But beyond it, Morgan sketches a real Manhattan ruled by prurient and destructive masculine appetites, from subway tunnels occupied by ad hoc homeless communities to office towers where the city’s most powerful residents impose their wills on millions of fellow New Yorkers.

So it’s fitting that the men in Eric—who are, for better or worse, the only characters who really matter here—are all cruel dads, their damaged sons, or both, even if the metaphor is belabored as the show progresses. Already overloaded with the storylines and psychological baggage and sociopolitical resonance surrounding its leads, the show adds too many secondary characters to serve as their often-unnecessary mirrors—self-loathing gay men who represent alternate scenarios for Mikey, dudes estranged from their fathers or guilty over alienating their own boys.

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Gaby Hoffmann in EricLudovic Robert—Netflix

Repetition makes a poor substitute for cohesion; the puppeteer literally wrestling with a giant, fuzzy, imaginary companion for control of his life rarely seems to inhabit the same universe as the righteous cop quietly juggling oppressions. More successful than Morgan’s laudable but unsustainable effort to counterweight the introspective odyssey of a self-destructive white guy with a larger social message is the balance director Lucy Forbes (This Is Going to Hurt, The End of the F***ing World) and her stars strike between two very different great performances. Cumberbatch has the big, flashy, man-coming-apart-at-the-seams role, and he smartly endows Vincent with a softness his prickly behavior belies. Stoic in the face of equally daunting problems, Belcher’s Mikey holds in his anger—which only heightens the effect of his inevitable explosion. Both perpetrators as well as victims of patriarchy, the mismatched pair helps prove that, when it comes to crime dramas, an ambitious mess is worth a dozen competent bores.

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