‘Eric’ review: Netflix series piles on the misery of Benedict Cumberbatch’s bitter puppeteer

The performances by the versatile Benedict Cumberbatch and the ensemble cast in the Netflix limited series crime drama “Eric” are something to behold.

The camerawork and production design are strikingly evocative of the 1980s New York setting, in particular some of the darkest and grubbiest and most forbidding and crime-riddled pockets of the city.

The plot, with the disappearance of a child at the heart of the story, has echoes of gripping films such as “Ransom” and “Gone Baby Gone,” and draws you in from the start.

And yet.

Despite those elements of prestige TV, “Eric” becomes an increasingly difficult and tiresome slog over the course of six episodes, in large part because of the manner in which it piles on the darkness and the ugliness, to the point where it’s overkill. It doesn’t help that Cumberbatch’s Vincent is such an odious and irredeemable character — the kind of person who by walking into a room makes you want to walk OUT of the room — that it’s a real task to feel empathy for his plight.

Created by the gifted Abi Morgan (“Suffragette”) and filmed in New York City as well as Budapest (!), “Eric” is set against the backdrop of a New York on the verge of collapsing under the weight of rising crime rates, police corruption, the AIDS epidemic, homelessness and endemic racism. Cumberbatch’s Vincent Anderson is a tightly wound, hard-drinking, verbally abusive and thoroughly unpleasant man who is a master puppeteer and the creator of a “Sesame Street”-esque children’s TV show called “Good Day Sunshine,” and it’s a stretch to believe this guy has ever had a good day or enjoyed the sunshine, but therein lies the dichotomy of it all, one supposes. (We learn Vincent has mental health issues and had a miserable childhood with his wealthy and cold-hearted parents; it goes to reason that he created this fantasy-world, hap-hap-happy TV show to fill some gaping hole in his heart.)

Vincent and his wife Cassie (Gaby Hoffman) are in the late stages of a dying marriage that is growing increasingly vituperative, with their 9-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Howe) caught in the crossfire. Edgar is clearly frightened by his intense father, who hears about an idea Edgar has for a new puppet and makes his son pitch it to him as if they’re colleagues, with Vincent barking at Edgar, “Keep looking at me. … You gotta pitch this thing. … Horns or no horns — you gotta be SPECIFIC. … Buzz! It’s just nosedived.” Some guy, that Vincent.

After Edgar goes missing on the short walk from his apartment to school, the story branches out in a myriad of directions and takes us into the lives of a number of characters whose lives are impacted by Edgar’s disappearance. McKinley Belcher III gives a screen-commanding performance as Detective Michael Ledroit, who heads up the case even as he cares for his longtime partner, William (Mark Gillis), who is dying of AIDS. The wonderful veteran actor Clarke Peters is George, the superintendent of the apartment building where Edgar lives, and whose own apartment contains some disturbing secrets. Wade Allain-Marcus is Gator, who runs a seedy nightclub and was once involved with Ledroit. Adepero Orere plays the mother of a 14-year-old Black boy named Marlon (Bence Orere), whose disappearance didn’t garner nearly the media and police attention as Edgar’s. Bamar Kane is Yussuf, a graffiti tagger and hustler who lives with hundreds if not thousands of other unhoused individuals in the tunnels underneath the streets.

With visuals bathed in tones cold and dark, “Eric” follows Vincent as he spirals deeper into alcoholism and addiction, even as he desperately tries to bring to “life” Eric, the Yeti-like puppet Edgar had drawn, and get him on the show, in the hopes Eric the puppet will be the beacon that brings Edgar home. Oh, and an imaginary version of Eric also begins to accompany Vincent, alternately encouraging him and berating him, and we sure hope they don’t run into that imaginary furry guy from “IF” on the streets of New York. We understand Vincent has been dealt a rough hand and isn’t well, but still, watching this guy wallow in his self-centered misery even when his son is missing leaves us repelled.

“Eric” piles on with the dark views of humanity as seen in several other characters, including Vincent’s parents, Ledroit’s precinct captain and William’s sister, who are awful human beings. There’s even a late reveal about a seemingly likable supporting player that seems unnecessarily, arbitrarily nasty. “Eric” is painted in harsh and broad strokes, and the cynicism and ugliness is relentless without being particularly insightful.

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