Anyone setting out to imagine a parody of what Damien Chazelle’s first television show would look like couldn’t possibly outdo the genuine article, Netflix’s The Eddy. Of course the Oscar-winning La La Land director has landed in Peak TV with a drama about jazz — set in and around a Parisian jazz club, no less. And of course it would share a similar tortured-artist philosophy with Chazelle’s breakout film Whiplash, along with some of the stoic grief of his Neil Armstrong biopic First Man.
“Music’s supposed to be fun!” argues a member of the club’s resident band. This prompts bandleader Elliot Udo (Andre Holland) — a former star pianist unable to play in the wake of tragedy, and struggling to reconnect with teen daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) — to retort, “It’s not fun for me. This is all I got!”
Yeah, it’s exactly what you would expect.
Chazelle isn’t technically the creator of The Eddy — but then, no one is. There’s no “created by” credit at all, with Netflix instead describing it as “brought to the screen through a collaboration between Alan Poul, Damien Chazelle, BAFTA Award winner Jack Thorne, and six-time Grammy Award winner Glen Ballard.” Chazelle directed the first two episodes, and Poul (a producer of Six Feet Under and The Newsroom, among others) also directed a couple. Ballard, producer of Alanis Morissette’s massive debut Jagged Little Pill, wrote the original songs and helped assemble the band, mostly played by real musicians. Thorne, meanwhile, is the primary writer, who’s usually the person listed as a series’ creator. A cynic might wonder if The Eddy eschewing that credit — a real rarity for a show that’s not based on a pre-existing property — is someone’s way of inflating Chazelle’s involvement on a show where he may have just been a hired gun.
Regardless of how credit — or blame — is assigned, the show feels like Chazelle’s oft-dramatized obsessions as filtered through the glum, workmanlike style Thorne brought to his adaptation of His Dark Materials. Just as the HBO fantasy series managed to present a world with talking armored bears and portals to other dimensions that at times was as lively as a trip to the post office, so too does The Eddy strike the most somber pose at every turn. Elliot’s muted disposition is initially balanced out by the exuberance of his best friend and partner, Farid (Tahar Rahim), but the show quickly sidelines Farid to focus on a murky story about counterfeit money and the uneasy alliance between the music business and organized crime.
The mob plot is the usual quicksand drama nonsense where the protagonist keeps sinking in deeper with every attempt to get out of the mess. Those scenes play like Thorne and his collaborators felt they had to add in more populist riffs to get people to sit through the loose and rambling sections that feel more like Elliot’s style of music. It’s as if someone looked at Tremé and suggested it would have been a hit if only it had been more like Sons of Anarchy. The crime story could potentially work on its own — Holland did a lot of hustling and scrambling, albeit in a less deadly context, in Steven Soderbergh’s fascinating Netflix film High Flying Bird — but the two halves of The Eddy don’t fit together at all. The flow of the version that’s Ozark with periodic subtitles(*) keeps being interrupted by extended band performances, while the tremendous sense of atmosphere that Chazelle, Poul, and the other directors create fizzles whenever Elliot has to wander off to spar with suspicious cops or predatory gangsters.
(*) Elliot is bilingual, and the band is multinational. English is primarily spoken, but there’s still a lot of French and occasionally some other languages mixed in.
The Eddy works most often on the side of things focused on the music, the culture, and the complicated relationship between Elliot and Julie. This is a part of Paris not often dramatized. No one’s apartment window overlooks the Eiffel Tower, and there are no romantic conversations along the Seine. Many of the regulars — including Farid, his wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti), and busboy Sim (Adil Dehbi) — are Muslim. The city feels real, and not like a postcard, yet the show is aware that it’s swimming against the tide of how Paris wants to see itself; Farid can’t get a loan for the struggling club because, he’s told, it’s “not French enough.”
Whether it’s French enough for the establishment, it’s a lively place that can really cook when the band is performing. The show favors letting songs play in their entirety, sometimes in a single take to show the club responding enthusiastically (or not, when the band is off its game). In those moments, or when the entire local jazz community comes together to memorialize one of their own, the power that the music has over these people, and the love they feel for it, becomes infectious enough to overcome Elliot’s current ambivalence about his craft.
It’s a thankless role for Holland — Elliot is often more scowl than man — yet one he manages to make sing in the parental scenes with Stenberg. In a show that was entirely about Elliot versus the gangsters, Julie would be the irritating wild card whose naive rebelliousness kept landing her and her father deeper into trouble. There’s a little of that here, but mostly the series is interested in how both father and daughter are coping with the sadness in their pasts, and with feeling like you don’t properly belong anywhere. Elliot gives Julie a copy of James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, and talks to his biracial daughter about the rich history of black people in Paris. But he also admits that throughout his career, he felt pressured to play music geared to white audiences. There are a number of scenes between them — particularly one where they discuss the deeper meaning of Julie changing her hairstyle — that are so sharply observed and poignant, it only makes the meandering, schizophrenic quality of the rest of The Eddy more frustrating.
The season builds, as you might expect, to an important performance at the club, and to a pivotal interaction between Elliot and Julie. When both happen, it doesn’t exactly excuse the muddle that came previously, but at least it’s a satisfying payoff for those who sat through the rest. And then, of course, the crime story intrudes again, derailing whatever emotional momentum has just been created.
In that sense, the very strange “brought to the screen through a collaboration” brings to mind the old saying about how a camel is a horse designed by committee. Each person’s brainstorm makes sense on its own, but put them altogether and you have one ungainly beast.
The Eddy premieres May 8th on Netflix. I’ve seen all eight episodes.
Note: At the time this review was written, Netflix said the show had no “created by” credit. The final version of the series identifies Jack Thorne as sole creator.