You may find it difficult to picture someone as physically endowed and dreamily handsome as Idris Elba playing a has-been loser (albeit a charming one), but Netflix’s recent comedy series Turn Up Charlie proves that a good actor can sell any role.
In addition to starring, Elba also co-created the half-hour comedy with producer Gary Reich. One would assume this means that he put a lot of thought into the character. Indeed, the entire show rests heavily on Elba’s shoulders. Thankfully, his endless charisma and seemingly effortless charm make it easy to buy into the premise without thinking about its improbability too much.
Elba plays Charlie Ayo, a former one-hit-wonder musician who, well into middle age, just can’t seem to get his life together. The past glory of his sole semi-popular song a couple decades behind him, Charlie mooches off the generosity of his aunt while scraping together a pittance as a party DJ at the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah. As much as he dreams big about getting back into the music game (and lies to his parents about being a high-powered record label executive), both his professional and romantic lives are in shambles.
While working the wedding of a mutual friend, Charlie is reacquainted with former childhood pal David (JJ Field), who has become a very successful Hollywood actor in the meantime. David has just moved back to London to star in a West End revival of A Streetcar Named Desire for which he is woefully unqualified. Really, however, the true purpose of his career change is to provide some stability to his rocky marriage and family life.
A chief source of stress in David’s life is his young daughter, Gabrielle (newcomer Frankie Hervey), a holy terror spoiled brat who has chased off every nanny her parents ever hired for her. When the easygoing Charlie actually seems to get along pretty well with the girl, David begs him to help out taking care of her for a couple months, just until she gets settled in at her new school. For doing such a big favor, he’ll of course be well compensated. Although being a nanny is pretty far outside his wheelhouse, Charlie could really use the money. Moreover, David’s wife Sara (Piper Perabo) is a world-famous DJ and music producer. If he can get in her good graces, Charlie hopes that she might help relaunch his career.
Naturally, the job proves to be much more challenging than the childless and commitment-phobic Charlie expected. As it turns out, raising a young girl, much less one so pampered and entitled, is even harder than making a hit song – and he hasn’t had much luck at that.
Season Verdict / Grade: B
Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie doesn’t exactly reinvent the sitcom format. It’s pretty formulaic and the story arcs are very predictable. Thankfully, the show is spared from turning into an unbearable Problem Child clone by some excellent character work from the cast. Idris Elba is pretty great playing a good-natured, likeable guy who has all the tools he needs to make something of his life, except the discipline to use them properly.
Arguably, the series really hinges on Frankie Hervey. Playing a precocious child without being too precocious is a damned difficult task. If she were too annoying, the whole thing would fall apart. Somehow, the young actress pulls it off, and sells her character’s growth from miserable brat to tolerable kid without dragging out the transition overly long. Supporting roles are also filled by a variety of colorful and endearing characters and performances.
The music industry setting isn’t explored as well as it could be. The series seems to confuse (or at least not properly distinguish) the difference between a DJ and a music producer, which I would assume are two very different jobs. The fact that Charlie considers a summer residency at a nightclub in Ibiza to be a career pinnacle he strives for could probably be mined for more humor rather than just accepted as a given. The show also fails to acknowledge that, to be blunt, all club music sounds exactly the same. When Charlie finally buckles down and puts real work into preparing a newly remixed version of his old song that blows up on the club scene, it’s nearly impossible to tell it apart from any other music we hear before or after. Maybe that could have been a running joke, but it’s not treated like one.
Whatever it lacks in ambition, Turn Up Charlie makes up for with breezy charm and affability. Eight half-hour episodes are an easy binge. I’d watch again if it comes back for another season.