Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie Is a Waste of Idris Elba’s Time and Talents

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Turn Up Charlie is, at best, a half-baked series. Not only is it derivative—it’s never quite sure which derivation it wants to stick with. Is it a family comedy? Or is it more Entourage… with a kid? Is it a series about the highs, lows, and price of fame? Is it the story of a first-generation Brit who’s worried about disappointing his Nigerian parents? Is it a love triangle? (Or love polygon?) Is it a story about friendship? The series is all of these things, and it does none of them well enough to justify its distraction.

Turn Up Charlie is also, at worst, a waste of Idris Elba and Piper Perabo’s time and talents. (The same could be said for the rest of the cast, but these two are the stars, and Perabo arguably gives the series’ best performance.) With eight half-hour episodes, it’s a relatively quick watch for a season of television. You can even call the fact that it’s the rare Netflix series whose episodes don’t feel too long a win—because, unfortunately for Turn Up Charlie, you’ve really got to grasp for the wins.

The series stars Elba (also its co-creator, with producer Gary Reich) as Charlie (a.k.a. “Charlie Ayo”), a DJ who was a one-hit wonder back in the 1990s and now lives with his Aunt Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien) and sidekick, Dell (Guz Khan), struggling to make ends meet and lying to his parents back in Nigeria about being a record executive. When his best mate-turned-Hollywood A-lister, David (JJ Feild), moves back to London with his wife, Sara (Perabo), an international-superstar DJ and their 11-year-old daughter, Gabby (Frankie Hervey), Charlie gets a chance to become little Gabs’ nanny (or “manny”—so much of the series’ humor comes from Charlie not wanting to be called either, of course), which he reluctantly takes because he’s a good friend and because, with Sara’s help, he could put his music career back on track.

If you’ve seen any movie where a “man’s man” has to take care of a child, you already know where the nannying story is going. Gabby supposedly has a 130 IQ, a blue belt in Krav Maga, speaks three different languages, and beatboxes. She speaks like an adult in that way no actual child (genius or otherwise) ever has or ever will, and every adult either allows it or pays it no mind. She’s precocious, and she makes sure everyone knows it. (Seriously, the series runs precociousness right into the ground.) Gabby loves to torture nannies and make them quit, and Charlie is her next victim. But sure enough, he’s able to break through her icy, neglected exterior and get her to be decent to him… while she remains a disrespectful monster to everyone else. (Because, again, she’s a neglected child who’s also richer than everyone.) Even then, she still calls Charlie a “bitch” all the time—one of the series’ recurring jokes—though since he’s the only person who’s not completely ruining her for adulthood, it’s supposed to be sweet.

The series’ very premise, then, is also its worst feature—Gabby, specifically, because in spite of its “family comedy” aspect, Turn Up Charlie is ultimately for and about adults. So when the series devotes an entire episode to Gabby and her misadventures as a name-dropping know-it-all who comes off looking worse than her bullies, you’re left to spend 20-plus minutes wondering if anyone ever suggested to Elba that maybe the kid shouldn’t be such a prominent part of this series, or that the nannying idea should be scrapped altogether. It’s one thing for a series (mediocre or not) to be about terrible people doing terrible things, but it’s quite another for one of those terrible people to be an 11-year-old—it just feels mean to call out how awful they are. But make no mistake: Gabby is awful. The “precocious child” trope is long past its expiration date; it’s even hackier than the “manny” premise, a bit the world’s most earnest series, This Is Us, mocked in its first season. And in trying to make Gabby a sympathetic character, showing how rough she has it with her parents’ neglect, the series only underscores what an entitled brat she is.

Yes, David and Sara are terrible parents (although the series suggests that Sara is at least trying to be less terrible). They’re also varying levels of self-absorbed and hateful toward each other. But they’re adults—watching their scenes, unlike Gabby’s, is not like spending time at the kids’ table and wondering why you’re there. In fact, hidden within Turn Up Charlie is a potentially compelling story about a marriage between two people who absolutely hate each other and Charlie’s place in between his longtime best friend and his more recent confidante. (The series is never clear whether there’s more to Charlie and Sara’s relationship. Charlie actually has a love interest, but as you can imagine, that story is… half-baked.) Unfortunately, despite Perabo developing strong chemistry with Elba through her surprising—yet notably non-comedic—performance, this doesn’t amount to much more than a squandered opportunity.

Even more frustrating is the way in which Turn Up Charlie’s aesthetic choices (or lack thereof) match its narrative ones: Despite being a series about music, from a man who is also a DJ, the majority of its cues are highly unmemorable; despite directors Tristram Shapeero (CommunityUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Matt Lipsey (Human RemainsPsychoville), there’s nothing of visual interest until the last two episodes. (Perhaps that’s tacit acknowledgment that there’s nothing that enthralling or stimulating about watching people DJ in this particular format.) Ultimately, given its shortcomings on all fronts, it’s unclear why Turn Up Charlie is a full-blown series rather than a Netflix original movie—especially if it focused on British-Nigerian staff writer Femi Oyeniran’s intimate understanding of the struggles of living up to the expectations of Nigerian culture. (Even if it were another “manny” movie, at least then it would feel less scattered.) As is, the series does many things, few of them well, despite containing all or most of the necessary ingredients. I suppose there’s a DJ analogy in there somewhere, but Turn Up Charlie can’t seem to find it, and neither can I.

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