‘Eric’ review: Cumberbatch stars in limited drama series that packs in too much

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“Eric” is a show with a lot going on.

The limited drama series from Netflix, dropping its six episodes this week, has dirty cops, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen and child sex traffickers. Set in mid-1980s New York City, it takes on the treatment of the homeless, as well as that of homosexuals in the time of AIDS.

At its core, though, it is a portrait of a man — Benedict Cumberbatch’s Vincent — battling personal demons after his 9-year-old son, Edgar (Ivan Howe in his first screen role), goes missing.

Who, then, is Eric? Fair question.

Eric is the colorful monster dreamed up by Edgar and brought to man-sized life by Vincent, the creator of a popular puppet-based children’s TV show. Eric ALSO becomes the imagined walking embodiment of the latter’s self-loathing. Invisible to others, Vincent talks to Eric constantly, even shouting at the invisible creature in the company of others.

Again, “Eric” is a show with a lot going on.

The tradeoff of the Abi Morgan-created series biting off more than it realistically can chew is that it is seldom boring, at least not for lengthy stretches. It jumps from plot thread to plot thread, all of which will tie together well enough by the end of its half-dozen hours. A little silly at times? Arguably. But not boring.

Vincent’s show is “Good Day Sunshine,” which has been a hit for years but is suffering from declining ratings, and so he and colleague Lennie (Dan Fogler of “The Offer”) are dealing with money men who want to see some changes made.

“We have to bridge the gap between the preschoolers and the elementary kids,” one says. “That’s where the cool kids are.”

However, Vincent is resistant to the addition of elements such as beatboxing, and he voices that to all within the sound of his voice in no uncertain terms.

After heading home with Edgar and buying him a comic book at a store where he gets some booze, Vincent engages in his latest shouting match with his increasingly exhausted wife, Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”), as Edgar hides in his room and draws. Although seemingly afraid there may be a monster living under his bed, Edgar has created myriad sketches of Eric.

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, as Vincent, and Ivan Howe, as Edgar, share a scene in the first episode of Netflix’s “Eric.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

In the morning, as his parents argue about whether he’s too young for Vincent to allow to walk to school on his own, Edgar does just that — although he never makes it to school.

In this time before mobile phones, Vincent never bothers to return Cassie’s call to his workplace that day, and he arrives home to find a cop from New York’s missing persons department, Det. Michael Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III), interviewing his wife.

McKinley Belcher III portrays police Det. Michael Ledroit in “Eric.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

After Edgar’s been missing for 48 hours, a press conference is held, during which Vincent looks into the camera and pleads with his son to come home, to prove everyone wrong who believes he’s dead.

He then decides to take matters into his own hands … by creating Eric and putting him on TV with the hope Edgar will see his creation on the screen and come home. Cassie suggests upon learning of this plan that he has lost he has lost his mind. (We agree!) Plus, he’s compulsively drinking — and abusing other substances — by this point.

Cumberbatch, an actor known for portraying Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as for his excellent work in “Sherlock” and “The Imitation Game,” is uneven here. To be fair, he has a tall task as this show’s main character, whom we need to root for even as he’s rude to people who care about him and thrashes about the Big Apple with his equally abrasive imaginary friend. (Cumberbatch goes growly and gravelly to voice Eric, who, like many of the city’s homeless, lives below ground.)

The strongest performance is turned in by Belcher (“Mercy Street,” “Ozark”). If Vincent is the show’s pulsing heartbeat, Ledroit is its soul, a closeted gay man who lives with his secret (and ill) lover, William (Mark Gillis). A former detective in the vice unit, the well-intentioned and determined Ledroit can’t stay away from a shady nightclub on Edgar’s path to school, which angers his boss (David Denman, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”) — especially after Ledroit has a run-in with current vice cops.

More interesting on-screen work is turned in by Bamar Kane (“Father & Soldier”) as Yuusuf, a member of one of the city’s homeless communities and who becomes important in the story.

Bamar Kane and Alexis Molnar portray members of a homeless community in mid-1980s New York City in “Eric.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

While not as steady overall as Belcher’s work, “Eric” has an unmistakable consistency as a result of all the episodes being penned by Morgan (“The Hour,” “The Iron Lady”) and directed by Lucy Forbes (“The End of the F***ing World”). There is value to this feeling like a long film but only so much.

Early on, “Eric” relies too heavily on red herrings, such as the brief interest in George (Clarke Peters, “The Wire”), the superintendent of the building where the family lives, as a possible kidnapper because, in part, he’d been friendly to Edgar and let him hang out in his place.

“Eric” keeps us guessing as to what has happened to Edgar for only so long, but it doesn’t grow any stronger after the reveal.

You can’t help but appreciate the work to bring 1980s New York to the screen, including exterior scenes chock full of extras.

One of which is the climactic scene of “Eric,” which, in being true to the rest of the show, is just too much.


What: Six-episode limited drama series.

Where: Netflix.

When: All episodes available May 30.

Rated: TV MA.

Stars (of four): 2.


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