The first thing you need to know about Netflix’s new show Turn Up Charlie, starring Idris Elba as a washed-up DJ working as his childhood best friend’s nanny, is that it’s corny. The second thing you need to know is that it ends in a drastically different place than it begins.
Co-created by Elba and Gary Reich, it should come as no surprise that the show is an exact Venn diagram of Elba’s interests. The commonalities shared by Elba and his fictional counterpart Charlie (Ayo!) include: being innately good with kids (Elba has two kids), having a middling DJ career that’s built on novelty (Elba DJs IRL), and struggling with a decades-long journey to success. At first the extremely thin boundary between Elba and Charlie means the show reads as a predictable sort of fantasy, a charming self-inserted fanfic. Broke, living with his aunt, and scraping for gigs at weddings, Charlie is responsible for 90 percent of his own problems but is such a lovable fuck-up that you find yourself rooting for him based solely on the infectious nature of his smirk.
When Charlie hits it off with the hellspawn of his childhood best friend, David (JJ Feild), now a famous actor, fairly standard Home Alone–style hjinks ensue. Charlie is harder to chase off than Gabby’s (Frankie Harvey) usual au pairs because he’s the one adult in her life who actually seems to have an interest in her emotional well-being. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he needs the money and the connections of David’s wife, Sara (Piper Perabo), a world famous DJ selling out intercontinental tours left and right. Charlie has a genuine soft spot for Gabby though, and Frankie Harvey sells the hell out of a privileged kid who desperately wants the one thing money can’t buy — her parents’ attention. There’s a repeated bit about how precocious she is, and it’s true. Between the global jetsetting of her mom’s tours, the party scenes her parents work in, and the enormous amount of wealth she is raised with, Gabby has experienced more of the world than any normal kid her age. But at the same time she’s a little girl who has yet to form any meaningful or permanent connections with her peers or the people who are supposed to be caring for her.
The formula is funny, simple, and sweet. If the stellar performances (Perabo in particular is a stand-out) don’t capture your attention, then there’s not much else in the show you’ll connect to.
But the series starts to show promise when it breaks its own blueprint. Roughly two thirds of the way through the eight-episode season, several premises are challenged: David backs out of crucial family commitments, the rising sexual tension between Charlie and Sara doesn’t come to the expected fruition, and Charlie gets a second chance at his music career and leaves Gabby behind in pursuit of it. It’s only when Gabby and Charlie’s relationship can’t be defined with a neat job title that Turn Up Charlie pushes past its surface-level corniness to unearth a glimmer of something genuine.
The final two episodes make it clear how much Gabby and Charlie have changed each other. Both are considered by their loved ones to be more trouble than they are worth, but their pseudo father-daughter relationship is proof to both of them that some people are worth coming back for even when they disappoint you. They teach each other to forgive, and with that gift both grow as people. Gabby sheds a layer of childish selfishness and Charlie finally stops letting his ego get in his way.
Turn Up Charlie is extremely character driven. If watching a slow evolution of characters appeals to you then the show is a light, easy, and relatively wholesome binge-watch. Elba is delightful in a comedic turn that we haven’t seen from him since The Office. In fact all of the characters — including phenomenal side characters like Aunt Lydia — manage to surprise the audience despite the initial caricatures of their particular subcultures they seem to be.
But beyond the impressive alchemy of the cast, the show is half-baked. It’s more of a collection of developed character studies than a cohesive, well-paced narrative. You’ll spend quite a bit of time wondering where the show is going before it suddenly gets there. And it’ll leaving you wishing that the show served the talents of the cast better, because it’s almost something good.
Turn Up Charlie premieres March 15 on Netflix.