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28 May 2024

Netflix’s Eric is a dark and daring triumph

It sounds absurd, but this series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, a missing child and a huge furry puppet is the best thing writer Abi Morgan has ever done.

By Rachel Cooke

When the writer Abi Morgan told me, during an interview in 2022, that she was working on a series for Netflix about a puppeteer, I shivered inwardly. For most people, puppets mean whimsy, which is bad enough. But if you’re my age, there’s also the terrifying matter of Pipkins, the cut-price British alternative to Sesame Street. For years I refused to see the National Theatre’s celebrated War Horse, for no other reason than I’d been so roundly traumatised as a child by a Brummie pig with no eyes and a face made from random bits of spam-coloured mattress foam.

But never mind. Having screwed up my courage to watch it, I find that I’m mad about Eric, a series whose all-round veracity – the writing, the acting, the look of every last apartment and subway carriage – enables it to pull off the rare feat of seeming almost as if it was made in the era in which it’s set (New York in the early Eighties). There are indeed puppets, but they’re more Sesame Street than Pipkins, and the only one that exists outside the set of a children’s TV show called Good Day Sunshine – Eric – is deployed by Morgan as a figment of the imagination of a man who’s cracking up. Blue and furry and six foot tall, he (it?) brings to mind not only The Gruffalo, but also (I’m sure the homage is deliberate) the huge white rabbit who is the imaginary best friend of the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 film, Harvey.

Eric, though, is darker than both those stories, which is where Morgan’s daring comes in. On paper, it sounds uncomfortable: the juxtaposition of a lumbering creature with horns and a stripy tail, and a plot about a small boy who has gone missing in a violent city, the only trace of him (so far: I’ve seen three episodes) a blood-stained T-shirt retrieved from an alley. But in practise, it isn’t clunky at all. Eric is a device, not a character, for all that he walks and talks. His presence enables Morgan to say things about love and loss, innocence and experience, conscience and creeping madness, without tediously spelling them out. Somewhat ironically, given both his genesis and his cute appearance, Eric mitigates sentimentality. The tropes of the police procedural are all present and correct, but so is he – and thanks to his synthetic fuzz, you see those tropes anew.

Vincent (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the puppeteer-genius who created Good Day Sunshine, a beloved and long-running TV show but the ratings for which are in the doldrums. His bosses at the network want a new puppet, one aimed at older kids, but Vincent, who’s difficult and hard to like, is preoccupied both with his own sacred standards (chasing audiences is beneath him), and with endlessly fighting his wife, Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann). It’s in the middle of one of their arguments that their sweet and sensitive son, Edgar (Ivan Morris Howe), disappears – the need for Vincent to have his say proves greater than his desire to see his boy safely to school. Vincent is overcome with guilt, even as he tries to press it down. How can Edgar be found? The police have their ideas, among them the janitor who lives in the basement of the family’s apartment building. But vodka-fuelled Vincent, teetering between magical thinking and a full-blown breakdown, has – spoiler alert – another idea. He will put a new puppet on his TV show, a character, Eric, based on Edgar’s own detailed drawings. Wherever he is, Edgar will see Eric and know how loved he is, at which point, he’ll come back home.

This must be the best thing Morgan has ever done. It’s as if she’s broken free, though from what, I’m not quite sure. I can’t say enough good things about the writing. Everything is so richly imagined: its characters and their relationships; the textures of a city that in the period when the series is set, is filthy and dangerous and in the middle of both a homeless crisis and the Aids epidemic. And the performances are wonderful (the exception being Phoebe Nicholls, who’s miscast as Vincent’s filthy-rich Upper East Side mother, mainly because she can’t do an American accent). Vincent’s fellow puppeteers are brilliantly droll and cynical: the opposite of sunshine. McKinley Belcher III is so gorgeously adroit as Michael, a black, secretly gay cop, his watchfulness like a cloak he puts on.

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There is a cause-and-effect interconnectedness at play here – what, if anything, links the nightclub at the end of Vincent’s block with their son’s disappearance? – that might have been borrowed from a novel by Tom Wolfe, and you get caught in its web, everyone, and everything, falling under your suspicion. Eric the puppet gives you the space to think and to feel, but he’s used sparingly enough that he never becomes cloying. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch is flying, all curly hair and conviction. Even the lolloping, energetic, flat-footed way he walks is purest Times Square, circa 1982 – it’s as if he’s a tall Dustin Hoffman or something. I believe in him absolutely: in his sadness and his rage, and even (yes) in his puppetry.

[See also: Jesse Armstrong: Writing America, from the outside]

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