Throughout the early episodes of Idris Elba’s breezy Netflix comedy Turn Up Charlie, his charge Gabriella (Frankie Hervey) often muses aloud: “Is it cute … or is it cringe?” Her question is in reference to different things, mostly Charlie’s (Elba) attempts to “connect on her level” or being the lovable goof that he is. But it’s also a valid question for this quick, 8-episode series that Elba co-created with Gary Reich. Turn Up Charlie’s beats are all familiar, and the first episodes will not convince you that there is enough material here for a series instead of a movie. But as it settles in, Elba’s charm matched with the series’ choice to move away from its central premise add up to a sun-soaked joyride … although one that hits some fairly major potholes along the way.
That central premise is this: Charlie Ayo is a down-on-his-luck DJ living with his auntie and cousin in a crowded London flat, an eternal bachelor without many prospects who lies to his parents in Nigeria about his successes. When his sweet childhood best friend David (JJ Fields) moves back to London with his family after finding success as a Hollywood star, the two reconnect, with Charlie hoping to find favor with David’s artsy, long-time partner Sara (Piper Perabo), a world-renowned music producer.
The catch is that what David and Sara really need is a nanny for their hellion child Gabriella (Frankie Hervey), an 11-year-old who talks like an adult and imbues everything with so much smug snark that almost everyone who meets her wants to immediately smack some respect into her. As any tired babysitter of demon children will know, what “Gabs” really needs is attention from her busy and distant parents, who are dealing with their own career and relationship issues. Enter Charlie, a reluctant manny who finds a new purpose for himself. (“You know Jesus did not die so that a man your age would be a childminder,” scolds his Aunt Lydia, played by Jocelyn Jee Esien).
This is all a story that has been done and done again, but when it works here it’s because of Elba’s charm. The series could almost be classified as a fantasy because we’re meant to believe that the dreamy, charismatic Elba is not the Hollywood star in this scenario. But as NPR TV critic Eric Deggans points out (I try not to read anything about shows I haven’t yet reviewed, though happened to catch this on the radio accidentally!), Turn Up Charlie could be Elba exploring what his life might have been like had things not worked out for him as they did. He is, after all, a DJ in real life, and that intimate knowledge of festivals and playing gigs in Ibiza shows in later episodes.
As for the question of “is it cute or cringe?” well, Turn Up Charlie is both. Hervey is good as the precocious Gabs, but she’s best when she’s allowed to be a kid. The rude adult discourse that she prides herself on is beyond irritating because it feels so unnaturally shoe-horned to make her “edgy,” and that doesn’t go away even after she and Charlie bond. The foul-mouthed Gabriella and her hooligan friend Hunter (Cameron King) also become noticeable weaknesses in the series as it moves away from Charlie’s early days as a manny to more interesting and actual adult material. In his collaborations with Sara and her team, he gets a second chance at fame, one that he squandered 20 years earlier. As he falls into his old patterns, the show morphs into an adult drama, one where Gabriella is suddenly absent. You can feel the pull of Elba wanting the show to just focus on the highs and lows of the modern music scene rather than Gabriella’s school woes, David’s struggles in wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, or deepening Aunt Lydia and Dell (Guz Khan) as more than comic relief (though they do make for great comic relief).
Some of the best comedy actually comes from Elba, but not because he’s trying. He’s loose and goofy in his portrayal, but he plays Charlie honestly and earnestly. The humor comes more from the situations he’s put himself in rather than his own timing, as well as his difficulty in getting up to speed in a high-tech music industry when he grew up with analog. We only get hints of his transition, though, as the quick-binge series flies through episodes that run from 22-28 minutes.
As the series moves to the sunny coast of Ibiza, with sparkling crystal water and all-night ragers, Turn Up Charlie’s aesthetics begin to more fully match its tone. The whole series is bright and light, with veteran director Tristram Shapeero helming the first half of the season, and Matt Lipsey handling the second. The change in style is noticeable, though, as each director puts their own signature on the series, but it also marks a shift in Turn Up Charlie’s narrative focus. There are flirtations with darker or more mature material, but it’s dismissed almost immediately in favor of flashy spectacle — which, admittedly, is fun. That all leads up to a cacophonous finale that leaves the door open for the series to go anywhere next, should Elba want to return. Turn Up Charlie, like Charlie himself, is admittedly a bit of a mess. As is the case with his 1997 hit “LUV,” there is some good stuff in the series. But if it returns, it might need a remix.
Turn Up Charlie premieres Friday, March 15th on Netflix.