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Idris Elba Is Still Searching for Imperfect Beats

Netflix’s ‘Turn Up Charlie’ takes the star back to his DJ roots. But that’s just dressing for the Kids Say the Darndest Things comedy, which marks the latest ill-fitting role for the reigning Sexiest Man Alive.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Did you know that Idris Elba DJ’d the 2018 royal wedding, at Prince Harry’s personal request? “It was great,” Elba enthused (?) on Ellen; “It was amazing,” he elaborated (?) to E! News on the press tour for his new Netflix comedy series, Turn Up Charlie, which premieres Friday, and is most emphatically neither amazing nor great. He reportedly dropped Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” as Duchess Meghan danced with her girlfriends; the happy couple chose Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” for their first dance, though it’s unclear whether the man once known as DJ Big Driis and currently known as People’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive pushed play on that one. No doubt the song would’ve somehow sounded way cooler and sexier if he did.

And that, unless you personally attended the royal wedding, is all the detail you’re liable to get about that. For further insight into Big Driis’s DJing technique or philosophy, you are stuck, unfortunately, with Turn Up Charlie.

Idris Elba has now been hailed as the perfect guy to play James Bond for so long that I can picture him as 007 more clearly than as any of the post–Stringer Bell characters he’s actually played. (It’s a bit of internet dreamcasting so prevalent that he joked about it this past weekend while hosting Saturday Night Live.) He’s been a multifilm Marvel superhero (on Asgard, but still); a multiseason grouchy BBC detective; an action star in hits as tonally various as Pacific Rim, Prometheus, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; an African warlord in the first big Netflix original film; and Nelson Mandela. He is a full-blown movie star who somehow still radiates limitless up-and-comer potential; he feels both ubiquitous and brazenly undervalued. Stars with half his profile often feel 10 times as overexposed.

Consequently, one major problem with Turn Up Charlie is that it’s awfully hard to buy him as, well, Charlie, a washed-up London DJ reduced to taking a gig as a nanny. “Let’s just face it: I’m a vintage, I’m a relic, I’m like an old-school legend that’s never coming back,” Charlie laments at one point. This is far less believable than that time he played Beyoncé’s husband. Elba’s semicomedic sad-sack routine is such that you spend most of this eight-episode series just assuming he gained at least a little weight to take on a character-appropriate paunch, until he spends most of the last two episodes shirtless in Ibiza, where it is revealed that no, he did not.

Turn Up Charlie’s episodes are, mercifully, sitcom length, but also sitcom depth. Charlie is a burnout, a loser, a one-hit wonder: That hit, “L.U.V,” is a lovely throwback to ’90s house devised by Elba himself, but as classic fake songs in TV and movies go, there’s nowhere near enough personality to it, with little concrete sense of Charlie’s rise, or peak, or fall. In the pilot, he is reduced to DJing a Nigerian wedding, where he reconnects with old schoolmate David (JJ Feild), who is now a superstar actor; later meets David’s superstar-DJ wife, Sara (Piper Perabo); and soon finds himself nannying their wildly precocious 11-year-old daughter, Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey).

Yeah. Despite the joyfully reverent soundtrack (which spans from retro drum ’n’ bass to the latest in assembly-line EDM) and the constant inside-baseball DJ talk (Charlie shows his age by lugging around an MPC drum machine), this show is, at heart, a Kids Say the Darndest Things situation, a far less lovely throwback all its own. Hervey does what she can with this wan material—she has an alarmingly convincing prep-school panic attack—but the script requires her to say, “Bitch, please,” like 10,000 times in four hours or so, and that’s not the half of it. In fact:

Top Five Most Precocious Lines Delivered by Turn Up Charlie’s Wildly Precocious 11-Year-Old

5. “I have a blue belt in krav maga. I have an IQ of 130. And I speak three languages. Also, I beatbox. [She beatboxes.] What do I need a nanny for?”

4. “Mom’s doing that thing that all successful women do: discrediting everything that she’s achieved to make you feel less bad about yourself.”

3. “There are more admirable women to stick up on my wall than a couple of vacuous pop stars singing about how men have scorned them.”

2. “I’m not really into the whole mainstream politics thing. It’s like Kanye says: Kim’s done more to change the world than Bernie ever could.”

1. [Asked to describe her fashion sense] “A hint of hipster, but in, like, an ironic way. Also I need it to be ethically made, totally unique, and gender-neutral. And don’t even think of suggesting a jumpsuit, ’cause those are logistical toilet nightmares.”

Turn Up Charlie’s idea of a joke is that at one point Gabrielle asks her mother what precocious means. The show, cocreated by Elba and Gary Reich, is meant to flaunt Elba’s range and comedic chops, which here consist of his growling, “Don’t call me a nanny,” in nearly every episode while plowing through the predictable story beats—the embarrassing mishaps, the uneasy truces, the baby steps toward redemption, the inevitable setbacks—this sort of replacement-level network-sitcom setup requires. (Assuming you can say “Bitch, please” on NBC, this show would make way more sense there.)

Late in the game, we take an odd time-jump to Ibiza, with Charlie on the comeback trail before succumbing to a vomit- and accidental-piss-drinking hedonism montage that would’ve worked better as the pilot, paired with some awkward and histrionic family melodrama the finale doesn’t even attempt to justify or resolve. The whole don’t-call-me-a-nanny (or worse yet, a “manny”) framework has been abandoned, which would be more of a relief had Turn Up Charlie coherently replaced it with anything. It doesn’t need a second season so much as a full reboot.

The only consistent pleasure of Turn Up Charlie is, most likely, the only reason you gave this show a shot in the first place: the copious footage of Idris Elba DJing, whether he’s commanding huge, adoring crowds in dream sequences or humiliating himself in front of bored gawkers half his age in this show’s confused idea of reality. His tinted shades and bulging-armed roof-raising antics are cheesy in quite an appealing and authentic-seeming way, at least. For those who’ve long regarded Elba’s DJ past (and present!), with its Coachella slots and IRL Ibiza antics, as the rare humanizing aspect of his superhuman rise to fame, this show fills out his celebrity backstory, even if it can’t sustain a fictional character. He passionately argues the merits of Analog vs. Digital with Perabo as though auditioning for a dance-music-centric A Star Is Born, which is a fantastic idea, actually, and yet another ideal role for him. So ideal, in fact, that it still beats almost any role he’s actually had.