Idris Elba Shows off His Funnier Side in Netflix’s ‘Turn Up Charlie’

Netflix’s “Turn Up Charlie” swerves between showcasing a lighter side to Idris Elba and evoking the feeling of being stuck with obnoxious rich people. Elba is the best thing about this new comedy, showing off his capacity to be funnier and livelier than his usual, brooding or action-oriented roles. Elba is himself a known DJ moonlighter, going by DJ Big Driis, and so he looks natural behind the turntables. This show is also his baby, as he gets co-creator billing with Gary Reich. But while Elba shines, much of the humor does not.

Elba plays Charlie, a one-hit wonder DJ from the 90s who squandered his earnings on girls and drugs (the usual), and now lives in London with his auntie Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien) and friend Del (Guz Khan). To save face with his parents in Nigeria, Charlie pretends over Skype to still be a big name in music, even faking phone conferences. Charlie soon reconnects with childhood friend David (JJ Feild), a British actor moving back to London with his famous DJ wife Sara (Piper Perabo). While paying a visit, Charlie meets David and Sara’s smart-ass daughter Gabby (Frankie Harvey). Gabby is lonely, feels ignored by her busy parents and projects it with a hurtful, mean attitude. She delights in sarcasm, throwing fits and causing mischief (like stealing a nanny’s vibrator). But after Charlie takes her out for a walk around London and seems to connect with the little terror, Sara and David beg him to be her “manny.” They will pay of course. Far from his dreams of a musical comeback, Charlie takes the gig and finds himself having to watch over a suspicious Gabby. His hope is of course that Sara might at least give him some studio time.

“Turn Up Charlie” is a variation on the old storyline of a lost adult connecting with a kid who needs a buddy. But the best scenes are the ones far away from Gabby. Charlie has some truly funny moments with Lydia and Del, capturing the frustration of a man in his 40s dealing with feeling stagnant in life. He’s like a poster child for this economically-strapped generation forced to constantly live with roommates or family, having to answer to every criticism as to why they aren’t successful. Idris Elba deserves credit for taking on a role that doesn’t feel like he’s auditioning for James Bond (let’s be frank, he would be perfect) or is required to haul heavy weaponry. He has a good sense of timing for the humor that works in this show. Charlie is instantly likeable and empathetic in his scenes at home or when he’s stuck playing some random gig, like weddings or 90s-themed parties, sometimes for free as favors for friends.

But the potential for where Charlie can go is lost with the other characters, which inspire little sympathy or even interest. Maybe it’s because the world of DJ’ing and parties at Ibiza don’t go that well with yarns about bratty, spoiled children who require a nanny (at least in this context). For at least the first four episodes Gabby ranks as one of the most annoying and unsavory children to appear in a recent TV show, endlessly pouting, spitting out the food Lydia serves her, and mocking Charlie by revealing brutal truths David has shared behind his back about being a has-been. David and Sara are equally annoying characters but on another level. They never inspire much empathy because they behave like stereotypes of bubbled-in rich people. David will sit in front of Gabby and spew some “woke” chatter about not wanting to stunt her growth, while Sara bemoans that she can’t take her to her first day of school because she’s recording vocals. These kinds of characters could of course make for great comedy, but in “Turn Up Charlie” they are simply unpleasant. We’re not surprised Gabby is turning out so horribly considering her parents are clueless, and at the same time it’s hard to feel for her since they aren’t exactly mean or cruel parents either. She’s just too spoiled for her own good. The only time we feel some sympathy is when Gabby goes to a private (of course) English school and is brushed aside by the preppies (who spread leaflets against austerity but hate socialists).

As you can already guess, Gabby’s friendship with Charlie will lead to her lightening up a bit and making discoveries about herself and having a better attitude, etc., etc., etc. There are a few funny moments where Gabby explains to Charlie the ways of uploading into the Cloud, or when Charlie struggles with learning how modern recording technology works in the studio, insisting analog is best. And of course Charlie will indeed get his chance at a comeback, as Sara lets him use her studio and promoters start coming his way. Sometimes a routine comedic story can be truly funny, but “Turn Up Charlie” falls flat when it should be a total rave up. The real winner is Elba, who proves he has the chops for trying something different, he just needs to find a better setlist.

Turn Up Charlie” season one begins streaming March 15 on Netflix.