Does the Bleakness of Eric and Baby Reindeer Indicate a Shift For Netflix?

The dark drama, starring Benedict Cumberbatch is the polar opposite of Stranger Things.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Eric
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s Eric.

While Stranger Things has announced an animated spinoff and is gearing up for a fifth and final season, a new drama set in ‘80s America has hit Netflix. It’s got monsters, it’s got kids in peril, it’s got a bike and no mobile phones, and it couldn’t be more different.

Created and written by Abi Morgan who penned heart wrenching series River, as well as true life dramas The Iron Lady and Suffragette, Eric stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor, a puppeteer on a popular kids’ show whose son Edgar goes missing. He is convinced the way to bring his son home is to create a real life version of the monster Edgar was drawing and get it on the show. And thus Eric is born, both the life-sized suit for an actor to wear, and the darker figment of Victor’s imagination who haunts him and berates him. 

Cute concept, sort of. Only it’s not actually, because this is the story of a broken addict who has destroyed his marriage and alienated his son. And this is an ‘80s America which doesn’t mean Rubik’s Cubes and poodle perms; it means police corruption, racism, homophobia, AIDS, homelessness and poverty. It means desperate people trying to scrape together a living, crimes being overlooked, and politically powerful people getting away with murder. 

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This is a ballsy move from Netflix. The originals the services is best known for tend to be documentaries, book adaptations, or multi-series shows like The Witcher, Stranger Things, Bridgerton, Money Heist, as well as the odd outlier like Squid Game

Eric isn’t getting another season. Despite the quirky sounding premise, Eric is not funny or kooky. Nor is it in anyway feelgood—in fact it’s aggressively feelbad. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an absolutely storming performance but he is playing a man destroyed, raging at himself and at the world. And it’s such an ugly world. Even Victor’s best friend and fellow show creator, Lennie (Dan Fogler), turns out to be an absolute monster. Which makes the show itself Good Day Sunshine, a sort of breezy Sesame Street-esque puppet show set in Central Park, all the more uncomfortable. 

And then there’s the ending. Eric has the closest to a happy ending possible without ruining the good work it had done over six relentlessly bleak episodes. Edgar is not dead. Victor has finally learned that he is the problem. He knows Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann) deserved better. He knows it was he who scared Edgar away. He knows that his own parents are monsters and finally cuts them off. And he promises to be better for his kid. A few months later, we are told, Cassie is very pregnant and Edgar and Victor are ok with that. Cassie, Sebastian (José Pimentão) and Edgar come to watch the stage show of Good Day Sunshine, with Victor playing Eric – he has his job back and appears to be drug and alcohol free. At the end we see Victor chatting to Edgar dressed as Eric as if they were meeting for the first time. There is hope – for that family at least. The well-off White family.

But lest we forget (and the show makes it so we absolutely are not permitted to forget, because Abi Morgan is way smarter than that), everything is still awful.

William (Mark Gillis) is dead. Michael (McKinley Belcher III) has had to leave the apartment they shared. Lennie has killed himself in the knowledge of the impending revelation that he was part of a child sex trafficking ring. And Marlon Rochelle (Bence Orere) is still dead, beaten to death by two dirty cops after giving a senior politician a blowjob, then dumped in the trash. His body still hasn’t been found but at least we know Michael won’t give up the search in New York’s sea of garbage. Marlon’s mother (Adepero Oduye), ignored by the police because her son was Black, has some semblance of justice but only by default—it’s only in hunting for White kid Edgar that her son’s case had received any attention. 

George (Clarke Peters) lives to fight another day, but he was still wrongly accused, and no doubt will be again. Yuusuf (Bamar Kane) has to find new lodging, as do the rest of the displaced homeless people who were flooded out of their makeshift shelters, but what’s next for him, after the chief of police released his image to the press? And poor old damaged Raya (Alexis Molnar) is dead, drowned and washed away like rubbish.

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Though the shows are absolutely nothing alike, the other recent Netflix show to bring in the crowds and make audiences feel terrible was Baby Reindeer, a quality piece of TV, also a limited series with no scope for a sequel (at least, we very much hope not—that’s a terrifying prospect). 

Does this suggest a slight shift in direction for Netflix? Eric is the kind of show that might have sat more comfortably on HBO Max or Amazon Prime, historically. It’s the kind of show that might attract awards attention. Baby Reindeer was something of a surprise hit, not the quirky Brit comedy it originally looked like, but a trauma story that captured audiences in a way no one could have predicted. It’s not that Netflix didn’t commission one-offs in the past, it’s more that these risky but quality shows with no franchise prospects from established talent are a change in speed from fluffy trash of the ilk of Clickbait or Obsession. If Eric is topping the most-watched in weeks to come we could be seeing a new direction from Netflix – watch this space.

In the meantime we need a palette cleanser, bring on Bridgerton season 3 part two…

Eric is available to stream on Netflix now