'Turn Up Charlie': TV Review

Not even Elba makes this worth a peek.
3/15/2019

How do you make a Netflix show with Idris Elba unwatchable? Surround him with awful characters.

Sometimes the easiest fixes are right in front of your face, and sometimes the even easier fix is to not have the bad idea in the first place that you'll need to fix later. That, basically, is the history of TV series production in one sentence.

But in the case of Netflix's oh-wow-how-did-this-happen series Turn Up Charlie, starring Idris Elba, it's not so much that Elba made a mistake in helping create a series about one of the loves of his life, being a DJ. It's that he muddled the concept so horribly by somehow agreeing in the process that his character, an aging lothario and one-hit DJ wonder from the '90s, would need to be a "manny" to one of his good friend's horrible children in order to make his comeback story believable.

But let's start at the beginning with the obvious: How do you botch anything starring Idris Elba?

Yes, that's been answered above and since Elba is one of the creators, executive producers and the star, it's not like he's innocent here. But still, could no one tell the man that this pet project of his would have worked had it just been the story of a DJ who was insanely popular one summer in Britain and then wasn’t, and who has tried to reclaim that life without luck in a series of odd jobs, girlfriends, lies to his Nigerian parents (who think he's successful in the music business) and perhaps an unwillingness to grow up?

That's a watchable series. Turn Up Charlie isn't, mostly because of all the ridiculous conceits added to the premise, which effectively shift the lead of the show to a child actress written to be insanely annoying and who delivers on that in every scene she's in.

As constructed, we have Charlie (Elba) and we know his story (which, quick reminder, would be an interesting one to tell some other way), and we have Charlie's best friend David (JJ Feild), a British actor who has made it huge in America but is back on his home turf in a play where his lack of real acting chops outside of the action-movie genre becomes fodder for British critics to savage. Hell, even David's own father thinks he can't act (that, like a lot of other things in Turn Up Charlie, is supposed to be funny).

David is married to a superstar American DJ named Sara (Piper Perabo), so that makes both David and Sara very rich and very in-demand, but they are also parents to the "precocious" child Gabby (Frankie Hervey), a monstrous creation who is perhaps meant to grow on you but, through five of the eight episodes, does not. (Getting through five episodes, by the way, was strictly for Elba and the wish that the series would somehow stop being awful — but there's only so much that can be endured.)

What Turn Up Charlie leans into — or, the preferred explanation: fails to see as a terrible idea — at its core is the David, Sara and Gabby trifecta. Here's the problem with that: They are all loathsome people (as are the various sycophants surrounding them). David and Sara are awful parents and Gabby is an awful, spoiled and unlikable smart-ass child. Late in the game, Turn Up Charlie tries to make Sara the less-awful parent, but in failing to make that convincing it just becomes the latest painful bit of writing that plagues this series.

Because they are bad parents, Sara and David saddle Charlie with watching Gabby, the daughter getting in the way of their careers and a girl who has tortured every nanny she has ever had. Charlie survives for one day and they want to hire him as their "manny" — an idea done before, of course, and do you really want to compare any of those in a merit-based argument? Charlie takes the job not only because he's broke, as described above, but he needs to make that comeback and Sara is not only a world-class famous DJ who could help him with his career, but she also conveniently has a recording studio downstairs at the house.

It shouldn't be surprising that the writers make Gabby beastly and grating (she says "bitch, please" repeatedly) and rotten (spoiled, rich, mean, selfish, devious, etc.) and that Hervey manages to pull that off; the truly surprising thing is that Elba didn't see his show about a struggling, aging DJ being hijacked by a concept so off-putting it's hard to watch.

Turn Up Charlie works best when — shocker — it focuses on Charlie's story, including his good friend and comic-relief sidekick Del (Guz Khan) and his aunt Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien); the trio make up the most grounded, believable and likable part of the series. 

Elba has stated repeatedly that he wanted to do a comedy. The parts where he interacts with Khan and Esien are funny and have potential; the parts with pretty much everyone else are wince-inducing and reduce Charlie to weakness and feebleness, not something you really want with a star like Elba. Maybe he was the one who came up with the "manny" idea (and should have been talked out of it), but his wish to make a series that somehow involves his passion for being a DJ wasn't off the mark and shouldn't go down as a mistake of conceptual vision. The mistake was not seeing what needed to be fixed when it was staring everybody in the face.

Cast: Idris Elba, Piper Perabo, JJ Feild, Frankie Hervey, Guz Khan, Jocelyn Jee Esien
Writers: Georgia Lester, Victoria Asare-Archer, Laura Neal, Femi Oyeniran
Directors: Tristram Shapeero, Matt Lipsey
Premieres: Friday
(Netflix)