Idris Elba is on a hot streak right now, and not just because he was named 2018’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” From a new season of his hit BBC America TV series “Luther,” to a role as the main antagonist in the “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw,” Elba is going to be kicking ass from the bedroom to the box office this summer. He’s also in talks to take over Will Smith's role in the reimagining of 2015’s failed “Suicide Squad.” But Elba wants us to know there’s more to his oeuvre than just action blockbusters and hardboiled characters. Case in point: The new Netflix show “Turn Up Charlie.”
Before Elba became a big-time star following the one-two punch of HBO’s “The Wire” and BBC’s “Luther,” he made ends meet by working as a DJ called Big Driis. While he’s mostly moved on from this side hustle, he still jumps behind the turntables when it suits him, spinning records at high-profile events like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding reception last year, or performing at Coachella later this spring. “Turn Up Charlie” is Elba’s chance to mix both his acting and his music in one project.
Elba wants us to know there’s more to his oeuvre than just action blockbusters and hardboiled characters.
And it is thoroughly an Elba project. Elba executive produced, wrote, stars in and even created the original music for the show, including the title character’s track, “L.U.V.,” which is on YouTube. It is also a very British series, full of a type of humor that would likely work fine in the U.K. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to work with American audiences.
Elba plays Charlie Ayo, a one-hit wonder DJ desperately trying to become a household name again. The character plays against Elba’s sexy action-hero vibe. Charlie is incompetent — not just with women, but in life. He got lucky once with a hit, but then pissed his earnings away on drugs and women. He’s that friend who’s always going to have your money next week when he gets that big gig, even though everyone knows that the gig is not coming through, and the money will never materialize.
Elba clearly enjoys playing an incompetent slob, but he doesn’t actually want his character to be the depressing drip he’s dreamed up. To turn this character into a hero we can root for, he throws Charlie into a parenting comedy, where he’s hired by a far more successful female DJ, Sara (Piper Perabo) and her Hollywood action star husband (J.J. Feild) to be the “manny” for their neglected daughter, Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey). Hervey is a newcomer to the acting world, and despite trying her best, she can't really keep up with Elba. It doesn’t help that the writing makes her out to be both a brat and an object of our pity via extreme parental neglect.
That’s generally the problem with the series. The child is obnoxious, and the parents aren’t any better: intensely self-absorbed people desperately attempting to avoid Charlie’s ignominious fate. In the U.K., this kind of intensely insecure humor works. But it doesn’t translate across the pond. As for the main character, if he were played by anyone who was not the world’s sexiest man, Charlie would seem a slightly horrifying caregiver choice.
But of course, this is Elba, and his intense charm makes it seem totally fine that parents would hand their kid over to a fame-obsessed grifter. To his credit, Charlie takes Gab’s tantrums in stride, like the world’s most loving parent, coming back again and again until the child stops pushing him away. The concept sort of holds together as long as Elba’s on screen, and all belief is suspended. But the moment he’s offscreen, and this happens more than one would think, the entire premise just crumbles.
Real Idris Elba superfans may recognize some similarities with Elba’s last attempt at comedy, a series that aired on Sky One. Called “In the Long Run,” Elba played the patriarch of an immigrant family from Sierra Leone living the council-estate life in the 1980s. There, too, he played against type and the show also included the same strain of gentle comedy and vaguely unlikable characters.
Idris Elba’s star power wasn’t enough to salvage “In the Long Run,” however, and it’s not going to save his Netflix show either. Viewers, especially American ones, expect something a little higher quality, or at least something that’s geared towards their sense of humor.
“Turn Up Charlie” isn’t the worst idea for a Netflix series, far from it. Nor is Elba’s attempt to create a high-profile outlet for his personal music career. However, if there is a second season, let’s hope he can find a way to transform this sitcom into something strong enough to stand next to his action films and dramas.