In my recent piece on the fascinatingly erratic status of Idris Elba’s career, I talked about how, even as the quality of his projects veers dramatically in terms of consistency, Elba is always looking for those moments of A-List style visibility. He’s a born megastar and he knows it, and one of the handy side-effects of working as a jobbing actor is that you’re given plenty of opportunities to show off your various skills. Elba’s an endlessly charming on-screen presence whose charisma often feels hampered by the material he’s given. So obviously the best way to fix that problem is to have Elba develop his own material, yes? Enter Turn Up Charlie, a new Netflix comedy headlined and co-created by Elba.
Elba plays the eponymous Charlie, a former DJ megastar who blew his one-hit-wonder fame on drugs, women and irresponsibility and has been reduced to playing weddings and dingy nightclubs to pay the bills. He lives with his aunt Lydia (a scene stealing Jocelyn Jee Esien) and sends all his residuals to his pushy parents who still believe him to be a world famous musician. Things start to change when his childhood best friend David (JJ Feild), now a famous actor, moves back to London with his DJ wife Sara (Piper Perabo) and problem child daughter Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey). She needs some stability in her life and a nanny she won’t run out of the country on a whim, Charlie needs money and access to Sara’s super swanky private studio. Surely he can put his ego to the side long enough for everyone to be happy?
Turn Up Charlie doesn’t want to be ‘The Nanny but Idris Elba is Fran Drescher’, even though some of its most enjoyable moments come from Elba playing around with that series’ dynamic of being the street-smart city boy looking after a sheltered spoiled brat who just needs some love. Indeed, for most of its ten episode first season run, the show doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be. It veers between ’90s American family sitcom saccharine and the more happy-go-lucky adult comedies of the early 2000s where drug references were ten a penny. Adorable moppet Gabriella’s precociousness comes and goes, and the show is stronger when it stops playing her as every wise beyond her years sitcom kid. The show takes a little too long to understand that Gabs is allowed to be a child and not a wisecracking one-liner machine (she loves to say ‘bitch, please’ and it stops being mildly funny almost instantly).
It’s only in those final three episodes where the show plants its flag in a formidable fashion and focuses on an idea that still feels kind of taboo in modern pop culture: What do you do when you’re a parent and you find your life much more fulfilling when you don’t centre your kids in every aspect of it? David and Sara are wildly successful creative types who are constantly afraid of their own irrelevance. David is a posh boy English actor who seems to be a much greater and more profitable novelty in Hollywood than on his own turf, with his West End debut eliciting sniggers of derision more than the thespian respect he craves. Sara is beloved and everyone wants to work with her but, as her manager constantly reminds her, music tastes shift on a whim and a DJ can’t afford to take a break to do the school run when there are a hundred younger, fitter and more drug induced wannabes waiting in the wings to replace her. They both love Gabs and are working hard to give her the stability she craves but neither or them are willing to give up their own lives, and that conflict makes for some of the series’ most interesting parts. Perabo is particularly appealing in her role as the former party girl whose lifestyle has gotten weary but retains its allure, and it helps that she has some sharp chemistry with Elba.
And let it never be said that Elba isn’t giving it his everything, even when the material lets him down. This man’s charisma will one day save us all, no joke. Charlie is a selfish jerk with a heart of gold, a trope we’re all too familiar with, but Elba’s laidback charm gives it enough fuel to sustain ten episodes. It’s a shame Charlie’s arc is so much less interesting than that of David and Sara, as his evolution from egotistical has-been to caring father figure is where the show’s broader and less interesting elements come to fruition. It’s not hard to see why Elba, himself a DJ, would want to develop a comedy where he gets to indulge in all his favourite things, but the drama of the DJ world and those various subplots are nowhere near as interesting to the audience as they are to Elba himself. Of course, this is also a show where seemingly every woman Elba encounters quickly falls prey to his sexual prowess, which is simultaneously predictable and entirely understandable (I mean, just look at him).
Turn Up Charlie doesn’t demand much from its audience or cast, even as it remains pretty watchable. Therein lies the frustrations, because it’s a show that offers glimmers of something far more abrasive and interesting beyond its desire to be a cutesy family sitcom. When it’s doing everything we’ve seen a hundred times before, you wonder why Elba and company bothered (yes, we get it, he doesn’t like being called a ‘manny’, it’s still not funny). When it admits that being a sweet family story is the most unappealing option possible for these grown-ups, there’s something to grab onto. Idris Elba has already confirmed that a second seasons is in the works, so here’s hoping Turn Up Charlie gets a serious fine-tuning. It would be a shame if the only reason to watch this was for Idris Elba, as seems to be the only reason for being for so many of hiss projects.
Turn Up Charlie is now available to watch on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix