Idris Elba recently declared his desire to be like Donald Glover, who’s been gripping triple-threat status in the film, TV, and music realms. Elba’s doing pretty damn well in the first two categories, but he mucks up his TV run while also mixing it up with the music side in Turn Up Charlie, where the not-James Bond actor reminds us that, yes, he’s a real-life DJ on the side. Elba acts as co-creator in this series, which claims to be a comedy about a struggling, down-on-his-luck artist who takes a nightmare gig while aiming for stardom.
It doesn’t sound awful. In fact, it actually sounds quite watchable, if only DJ Charlie engaged in embarrassing shenanigans to properly showcase Elba’s comedic timing. Unfortunately, this series really contains two mismatched shows that cannibalize each other and take down the whole ship. The first show focuses on a turntable master who plays lame wedding gigs and exchanges regular blows with his best friend, Del (Guz Khan), and his overbearing aunt Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien). Those three enjoy a great deal of chemistry together and antagonize each other well in a relatable way. The second show, however, is the one that vastly outweighs the other in terms of screentime and characters who are difficult to care about. That would be the “manny” angle that saddles Elba with a nightmare child who can’t wait to ruin his life.
Let’s talk about the pluses here:
1. Idris Elba is Charlie.
2. The wine stain on Charlie’s shirt at his first DJ gig speaks to me.
3. The man can really dance.
4. His best friend and aunt are genuinely funny.
5. This would have made a great SNL skit, and blammo, done.
Then there are the minuses:
1. Idris Elba as Charlie is wasted.
2. There’s sadly not much DJ-ing going on.
3. Most of the characters, including the wise-beyond-her-years kid, fail to connect with the audience or give us a reason to care about their plight.
4. His best friend and aunt barely appear.
5. The 8 episodes are mostly full of filler.
The end result is a the latest paint-by numbers take on the “hunky guy takes care of a child” comedy subgenre like Three Men And A Baby and the more recent tough-guy-with-a-kid variant like Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier and Dwayne Johnson’s The Game Plan. There are also shades of 1980s sitcoms like Gimme A Break or even Who’s The Boss? without the necessary humor. And while it would be very easy to say that this series wasted Idris Elba on a story that’s essentially been done many times before, at least the above entries oozed charm, whereas this series squanders Elba’s charisma. Also, Idris Elba co-created Turn Up Charlie and, as such, he had plenty of opportunity to produce something different in which Idris Elba stars.
Ironically, this is supposed to be a show about a struggling DJ, but it plays like a broken record at times. The writers endlessly repeat jokes about Charlie not wanting to be called a manny. Yet a manny he turns out to be, given that his friend, Sara (Piper Perabo), is a big-time successful DJ, and he thinks that he can squirm his way into mutual stardom. His charge, Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey) is exactly how you expect her to be — 11 years old, very bright, but she’s a pain in the ass who takes joy in sending all nannies screaming for the hills. She’s the typical cliché of a wealthy brat who has every material object within her grasp, but underneath it all, she’s upset that her parents don’t have time for her. You’ve seen this story before with different permutations.
Sadly, there’s really nothing that this series brings to the table beyond Idris Elba showing that he can be a little bit funny. He’s actually very funny in the first episode, which points toward potential that isn’t satisfied here. Couldn’t the writers and Elba have shelved the manny angle to explore different scenarios in which he ridiculously fails at DJ-ing? I’d watch that. Or maybe he shoots to stardom and fails at relationships with women? It’s perplexing at how this didn’t happen, and the writers waste a lot of time on Gabrielle’s antics. Her begrudging relationship with Charlie takes an all-too predictable turn that you can surely guess without me even lifting a finger to spoil. There’s no organic character growth to be seen, and Charlie’s simply not messy enough as a human being to sell this thing as a comedy.
Turn Up Charlie is a stunningly mainstream effort — something that you’d see on Friday night on any local network — rather than something novel or fresh-feeling like so many other Netflix series. Instead, the streaming service has seemingly tossed Idris Elba into a comedy (in the loosest sense of the word) and decided that no matter what happens on the show, their work was already done by hiring him. I’ll hang onto the wine stain, though, as a sign of what could come in a more fleshed-out series.
Netflix’s ‘Turn Up Charlie’ streams on Friday, March 15th.