It is an undeniable fact that Idris Elba, the World's Sexiest Man– and the people's choice for the next James Bond, is the star of "Turn Up Charlie," a new series from Netflix.
It is further true that the man who was Stringer Bell and Luther has chosen as his next TV series not a dark crime procedural, or anything else in which he is allowed to smolder seductively, but a comedy in which he plays a has-been DJ and semi-hapless nice guy hired to mind the troublesome child of a successful old friend.
Elba, who has been a DJ himself and will be working the wheels of steel at Coachella this year, co-created the series, premiering Friday, with British TV producer Gary Reich ("Vicious," "3 Non-Blondes"). Its initial episodes were directed by Tristram Shapeero, whose credits include "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Community" and "Peep Show"), with Matt Lipsey ("Saxondale," "Little Britain") helming the later ones. And much of it was written by Georgia Lester ("Youngers," the British soap "Hollyoaks").
It is the case, too, that "Charlie" costars JJ Feild as David, the successful old friend and Hollywood movie star who has moved back to London in order to give his daughter, Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey), a more stable life; to work on his marriage to Sara (Piper Perabo), an internationally famous American DJ and record producer; and to stretch himself – he is an action star – by playing Stanley Kowalski in a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
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The story of work-distracted parents offloading the care of an unhappy, troublesome child, often to a person with no experience of child-care, is something we have seen many times before. (There are variations: Sometimes the parents are dead; sometimes the minder knows her business; sometimes it is the minder and not the child who is unhappy, and so on.) This same engine has powered chassis from "Little Miss Marker" to "Mary Poppins," from "Paper Moon" to "Beetlejuice," "Family Affair" to "Charles in Charge" – yes, you can call this "Charlie's in Charge" – and probably some Steve Guttenberg movie I am forgetting about.
We know the ingredients so well, we feel we could have assembled them ourselves, blindfolded. What we have in "Turn Up Charlie" is an amiable, ambling, eagerly conventional, fairly superficial comedy, not hard to watch, although much longer than it needs to be.
If a letdown in the end, there are plenty of pleasant things on the way. Elba and newcomer Hervey have real rapport, as do Hervey and Perabo as daughter and mother. (Feild fares less well, though that is in part his assigned role.) Hervey is good throughout but is at her best at her most vulnerable; in one sweet memorable moment, having described herself as precocious through much of an episode, she asks her mother what "precocious" means.
Elba, who plays comedy like a dramatic actor, has no trouble making you believe, against all bodily evidence, that his Charlie Ayo is a bit of a dud, a DJ who can't even get a crowd on the dance floor at a wedding. He long ago squandered the money from a 1990s hit single – "I was a massive deal, big superstar for the summer" – on low-life high living.
He has more recently lost his splendid girlfriend to a less disordered man and is living with his aunt Lydia (Jocelyn Jee Esien) in a house his parents own; they are back in Nigeria and believe he is a record mogul. Nevertheless, as is traditional, we will see David and Sara's airless life of privilege contrasted with that of the lively, close-quartered working and not-working class. (Guz Khan fills that last role well as Charlie's always-around friend, Del.)
Charlie thinks that Sara might be his way to comeback. But the fate of his potentially resurgent career, which becomes a driving force of later episodes, is never as interesting as his relationship to Gabrielle, which, with some turnabouts, is established as good relatively early. This leaves the show free to wander off down less profitable avenues and to explore less convincing relationships. The state of David and Sara's marriage is a subject regularly explored but never quite compelling.
A quasi-romance with Sara's manager, Astrid (Angela Griffin), seems to have been created only in order that Elba fulfill his duties as World's Sexiest Man–. (There's no nudity, but Elba goes shirtless more than once, you viewers who may come to this show in the hopes of seeing Elba without a shirt on.)
Perhaps because it's essentially shallow, "Turn Up Charlie" is at its best when it's most conventional. The show's fits of edginess – adult inebriation, scenes in which children happily deal drugs from an ice cream truck, instances of explicit sexual language or references – may not be unrealistic in terms of the series' milieu but, nevertheless, feel labored and tonally discordant. It's a family entertainment that keeps forgetting itself.
There might be an interesting series to be built around Charlie as a man whose portion of talent has taken him as far as it ever would; the scenes in the old neighborhood are more vibrant than the big, admittedly well-staged detours to a pastoral music festival and the party island of Ibiza, but this show's nakedly aspirational nature paints it into a narrative corner. It wants to deliver good outcomes, and when they arrive, it's by special delivery, with a police escort.
Whether or not it's the case here – this may be the very show Elba wanted to make – it's the sort of ending one often learns was imposed by a studio in place of the more subtle or ambiguous one the creators wanted. It is meant to be satisfying.