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The dark side of the city

A 7-foot puppet monster shadows him, still Benedict Cumberbatch grabs all attention as he searches for his son

By Faiza Shah |
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PUBLISHED June 23, 2024

Eric is set in a city grappling with familiar issues: a broken infrastructure, with residents regularly complaining to the local government of garbage heaps strewn by the roadsides; a city beset with rampant crime, with routine break-ins and gang violence; and a growing population of addicts and the homeless sleeping in its dark shadows. Sounds like Karachi but this is New York of the 1980s.

This is the grimy backdrop of the gritty seven part Netflix show starring Benedict Cumberbatch. However, the first episode opens, in contrast, on the set of a popular children’s puppet TV show Good Morning Sunshine which is making children of New York laugh and learn to appreciate the good things about life. The convivial and sunny disposition of the band of colourful hand puppets entertaining young children whose parents try their best to protect from the underbelly of NYC and the rancor and discontentment of adult life. Cumberbatch as Vincent crouches under the bright happy artificial world, along with his colleagues, who are operating the rest of the puppet crew singing songs of rainbows and blue skies.

Vincent is jarringly unlike the merry kids’ show but he is ironically one of the lead creators on the team. He is too arrogant to take his colleagues and producers seriously, because of which he wins no friends. At home, he has a timid nine-year-old quiet but talented son who he raises with a heavy hand (this is the age before modern parenting styles were in vogue) and a wife, Cassie, (Gaby Hoffmann) he is disgruntled with. Coming home frustrated from his job, he bristles under his wife’s admonishment of being a domineering dad, making him reach for a drink more often than he should. Cumberbatch has assumed the character of Vincent so fully, it is hard to find fault with his immersive performance.

When his son Edgar goes missing one morning, the dangers lurking in every corner of the city are exposed. The fear of what the boy may be vulnerable to in the big bad world makes the plot taut with tension. How relatable this is for residents of Karachi. The crime drama creates unease within the home, casting Vincent himself in a suspicious light. With his attitude and simmering anger, he is a believable suspect. He could have harmed Edgar, or could he really? Why didn’t he ensure his son reached school safely? Why does he have a bruise on his forehead? He is a father and also in the show business for children’s entertainment. Surely there is a gentle heart underneath all the gruff and acerbic demeanor. Then there is the janitor of the building where the family live. He’s good and kind to children in the building but is he perhaps too good for a vile motive? A pedophile? A monster behind the mask of a gentleman? Vincent and Cassie have placed their total trust in him as long as they have occupied the flat but they now become wary of him as do the police after discovering he was (falsely) accused of the very crime in the past.

Just as the Sindh police garners no trust from the public at large, the NYPD is painted as utterly corrupt and unhelpful. This is not a fictive depiction of deep-rooted corruption in NYC law enforcement in the decade that Eric belongs to. It was as prevalent as within our own police. Michael Ledroit (McKinley Belcher) is the other protagonist of the show through whom the viewer is shown larger systemic issues of racism, homophobia, political corruption that wracked city life through much of the 1980s and 1990s. The AIDS and crack pandemic has ravaged much of the substratum of New York’s society. Ledroit is the detective who gets on the trail of Edgar’s disappearance is a Black homosexual man whose partner is dying of AIDS. The case leads him to uncover the horrifying reality about some of his fellow officers and higher ups. He’s working with bent cops who have too many connections to be found out as culprits of heinous crimes like child sex abuse.

The nexus of the story arcs of Ledroit and Vincent is the NYC underground, which are drug dens for the addicts and the homeless. Edgar has managed to land himself in the very maw of the beast that the city is. When there is a police crackdown on the homeless in the tunnels, Vincent, searching for Edgar, is there at the same time.

This is where Eric comes in.

Eric is the name of a puppet monster conceived by Vincent’s son Edgar who admires and fears his dad in equal measure. Drawing is his creative outlet when his parents are having it out at over dinner or breakfast. The janitor’s basement is also Edgar’s refuge where he goes there to draw in peace. While looking for Edgar, Vincent discovers drawings of the puppet and gets it in his head that he must create the puppet for Good Morning Sunshine in order to express his love for his son. Seeing Eric, he is convinced, Edgar will come home.

Vincent begins to ‘see’ Eric as a tormenting muse, hallucination from drink and drugs, and his alter ego. Before he can create the physical puppet in the costume department, Eric has already taken form as a seven-foot blue monster towering over him searching the city for Edgar every waking moment.

The show creator Abi Morgan alludes to Eric as a Hansel and Gretel type fable where the children are lost in a terrifying world and the king goes in search for them. In an interview to Tudum by Netflix, Cumberbatch elaborates that the difference is the reason why Edgar has gone missing. “[Vincent’s] child has been catapulted into the unknown by Vincent’s parenting failures, which were brought about by his own trauma,” he said. “That [sense of] failure, that his parents passed on to him, has made his relationship with his own child, his workplace, and his marriage toxic.” Morgan places Vincent in a point in his unravelling life where he can reclaim responsibility or lose his slip on everything altogether. While searching for his son he falls in a downward spiral of substance abuse and alienation but is saved by a figment of imagination dreamed up by his son and now very much himself, Eric.

Morgan has managed a surprising triumph in melding dichotomous tropes and worlds of flights of fancy and the suffering of urban life. Although, the huge puppet is visibly and physically an incongruous thing to adjust to in a serious emotional drama, it is the human struggles in the story that leave an impression on the viewer. The puppet is only a prism through which Morgan has refracted the grains of life’s trials and tribulations. Thankfully, ultimately there is triumph too, in the reunion of father and son.

You can almost call this venture an ‘old world’ drama, where the heavy lifting is done by fine acting by the cast not fast-paced action, needless plot twists or CGI. The main characters each expand the various plot lines, bringing depth to their roles in the story. Just as Detective Ledroit personifies the ethos of corruption and discrimination in society, Vincent’s wife Cassie channels the style and tone of the 1980s vividly as a middle-class woman living in New York. In fact the execution of creating the feel of the decade is so on point throughout that one could easily mistake this show for being made not in 2024 but 1985.

Pakistanis who visit New York City even now draw similarities with the metropolis of Karachi. “It’s loud, crowded and smelly” someone wrote to me their first impressions of the Big Apple just yesterday. But the heart of American culture and the hub of urban tourism have undergone significant changes over time, for the better. There has been a decline in crime rates since the crack epidemic and an economic boom in industry and technology. Housing schemes have developed at a fast pace and gentrification has ‘cleaned up’ the city in many parts.

Among the archives of one of New York’s integral cultural symbol The New York Times, I came upon an article by Barry Bearak, reporting from Karachi on the rampant heroin addiction among the population here. A National Survey on Drug Abuse from 1993 estimated about half of the three million drug users at the time were addicted to heroin. Published on 19 April, 2000, the NYT article describes a slice of the daily roadside scenes Karachi witnessed since the 1980s and worsened with the US war on Afghanistan. “Karachi itself, a city notorious for lawlessness, political killings and gargantuan slums, has 600,000 heroin addicts, according to the nation's anti-narcotics officials. And while that total seems exaggerated -- for it would mean that about 1 in 15 adult males is hooked -- the city is replete with the dope-addled in each section of its troubled sprawl,” it reads.

“Addicts are everywhere and nowhere, easy to overlook from a car but impossible to miss on foot. They are huddled on the sidewalk, under the bridge, behind the truck, against the fence, along the prime begging space beside the shrine.”

The writer quoted then a UNODC official claiming, “we can be quite definite that Pakistan has the largest heroin population.''

That was 24 years ago. Last year, according to news reports, the UNODC now estimates more than 800,000 Pakistanis aged between 15 and 64 use heroin and up to 44 tonnes of heroin is consumed annually in the country. Since then there has been an alarming increase of more than 10 percent per year of drug users. The total number of addicts in 2022 was estimated at almost seven million, out of which about two million were heroin addicts.

We must take a page from New York City’s history and expedite efforts to tackle the drug menace in our own turf through education, social awareness and most of all improved law and order. Karachi too requires a clean-up in more ways than one, with high rate of street crime and an infrastructure that governments fail to strengthen.