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‘Turn Up Charlie’ Fails to Live Up to its Name

Turn Up Charlie Still
Idris Elba plays in Charlie in the new Netflix series: “Turn Up Charlie.”

The biggest caveat of pulsating house music is that it doesn’t possess much substance when you listen to it outside the carefree, euphoria-filled dance floor. “Turn Up Charlie,” which follows the life of a DJ, is similar in this respect in that it lacks a strong or rich universal meaning. This new Netflix miniseries is full of lackluster dialogue, over-pronounced characters, and repetitive development. Although these dull aspects are sandwiched between a few redeeming moments of clarity, “Turn Up Charlie” is still an uncaptivating, average show that takes a promising premise and replaces it with shallowness and predictability.

Set in London, “Turn Up Charlie” chronicles the life of Charlie Ayo, a DJ who has fallen victim to “I-used-to-be-relevant”-itis and is seeking to find success again in the midst of one of life’s rougher patches. Portrayed by the ever-talented Idris Elba, Charlie runs into an old friend, David (JJ Feild), at a wedding. He’s now a rich and famous actor married to the successful DJ Sara Caine (Piper Perabo) — a fact that further underscores Charlie’s luckless state. When David and Sara choose to move to London, they offer Charlie a career opportunity not as lucrative as he desires: being a nanny for their self-proclaimed “precocious” daughter Gabs.

Gabs (Frankie Hervey) initially seems to be one of the least generic characters but is revealed to fulfill the stereotype of the spoiled, acerbic, and well-spoken problem child of neglectful parents. Her lines, although witty, are almost too contrived, which makes the attempt at breaking free from the rebellious, latchkey child trope fall flat. Oftentimes her attention-seeking schemes are just things that most 11-year olds would not realistically have the means or reasons to do. It seems disingenuous to fabricate such a persona, and Gabs’s edginess comes off as shallow instead of badass (recalling the foul-mouthed sensation Lil Tay and the allegations that her teen brother crafted the entirety of her “youngest flexer of the century” persona).

As her “manny,” Charlie treats Gabs with the attention she needs, which she doesn’t receive from her parents — Sara often only responds to Gabs when she addresses her mother by her first name, and David cannot figure out how to give his daughter gifts that she genuinely enjoys. The highlight of the show occurs when Charlie and Gabs become less wary of each other, each shedding their preconceived notions of one another. She understands that Charlie is more than just a washed up DJ, and Charlie sees Gabs as more than just a spoiled, foul-mouthed, and self-righteous kid. Elba shines in this tenderhearted portrayal of a “manny.” He captures the role of the parental stand-in without saccharine and with a sense of genuine compassion for Gabs. This is one of the redeeming aspects of the show: the power of a parental figure who understands that presence takes precedence over presents.

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The relationship between Charlie and Gabs, while an endearing high point of the show, is nevertheless drowned out by everything else going on with the other characters. The show is named “Turn Up Charlie,” yet it seems to be less centered on Charlie and more on his rich and successful friends who continuously struggle to balance the dual difficulties of maintaining their careers and raising their child, with Charlie only as background noise to this central conflict. Furthermore, by the time the season begins to focus more on the titular Charlie and his career, the repetitive storyline of parental neglect in favor of careerism has left so little screen time to build up Charlie’s come-up that it’s hard to feel much empathy for any of the characters.

Although the show frequently includes pop culture references, “Turn Up Charlie” fails to be current when it actually matters. The way David reacted to Gabs’s first period was another unnecessary iteration of the “periods are gross and weird” narrative. We’re led to believe that Gabs’s parents are progressive, level-headed, and quite deliberate in how they raise their daughter, but her father’s reaction to menstruation is a disappointing display of how some outdated tropes are still being used even when characters are dropping EDM tracks and FaceTiming. In 2019, the trope that leads girls to believe that their periods are an unnatural feature of their bodies does not need to be recapitulated, even jokingly.

The show is filled with house beats throughout, but they’re mind-numbingly generic and oftentimes make the show seem more monotonous than necessary. Of course, it’s an apt soundtrack given the DJ-ing themes of the show, but it certainly does not bring out anything new out of the performances or the plot.

At the end of the day, “Turn Up Charlie” is a less-than-captivating show that slowly drags the viewer with it, instead of quickly reeling in the viewer. Fans of Elba may enjoy it for the sake of Elba himself, but those without any preexisting affinities for the actor will likely not find that they stumbled across an inexhaustible Netflix gem. The last episode reveals a somewhat expected twist that involves a fallout between Charlie, David, and Sara — an unnecessary addition. But Charlie and Gabs’s burgeoning relationship, the highlight of the plot, does tie up quite nicely. Even in the dull, booming bass of the dance floor, Charlie and Gabs are still able to create some meaning between themselves, which is a small triumph for an otherwise disengaging show.

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