"The Eddy," a tale of jazz and Paris that announces itself as "une serie originale Netflix," is an unusual mix of the very good and the less good — pedestrian in its outlines, often sublime in its particulars. There are things here I am happy to have seen — thankful, even — as anything that's come my way across a screen, that I could watch a hundred times and feel their impact no less. At other times, it is as if a team of thoroughbreds has been yoked to a bus filled with concrete and plot. The series, which begins Friday, is greater in its parts than its sum. But its parts can be pretty great.
Elliot Udo (André Holland) is an American genius jazz pianist living in Paris. He hasn't performed in years, since the death of his son — for some reason I didn't catch, though I'm pretty certain was never offered. Then again, Elliot doesn't talk much about it. If he no longer takes the stage, he continues to compose, and has assembled a band to play his music at the club he runs with his old friend, Farid (Tahar Rahim). Both the band and the club are called the Eddy, which is also the title and refrain of a song Elliot is finishing as the series begins, which will haunt you throughout and which I think of as "'The Eddy,' theme from 'The Eddy.'"
Farid has been involved with some shady characters, which leads to all sort of complications I will not reveal other than to say that Elliot, who has been paying no attention to the management of the club — because he's an artist, with songs to write and a band to hector — is left to deal with on his own. He winds up caught between the police on one side and multiple layers of criminals on the other, and in trying to preserve his nightclub makes things worse with both.
Into this world steps Elliot's daughter, Julie (Amandla Stenberg), who arrives from New York, where things have not been going well with her mother and stepfather. She's not sure how glad he is to have her, and he is possibly less than sure himself; they are strangers, after a fashion. The viewer is glad, in any case — Stenberg is an arresting presence just doing nothing much, watching or listening (or not listening) or walking down a street, and she manages to absorb her more hysterical scenes into a believable person. Indeed, the series is held aloft by its female characters and players: Julie; Maja (Joanna Kulig), the band's singer, who has (paused) romantic history with Elliot; and, Farid's wife, Amira (Leïla Bekhti, in a performance as powerful as it is modulated).
The first two episodes, as publicity materials are quick to point out, were directed by Damien Chazelle, whose Oscar-eating "La La Land" was also about jazz musicians, a nightclub and a song, and played on themes of art versus commerce. (Subsequent episodes were directed, two apiece, by Houda Benyamina, Laila Marrakchi and executive producer Alan Poul.) But where that soundstage fantasy was a take on MGM musicals, "The Eddy" has a Gallic energy — handheld cameras following the characters, or long lenses picking them out amid the unstaged life of real Paris streets. And not the pretty, picture-postcard ones, either, but those in the unlovely, lively outer neighborhoods. Many of these characters are scraping by, and most are immigrants or closely descended from immigrants. (One of the nicer features of the series is its natural mix of tongues — French, English, Arabic, Polish.)
There is, indeed, something about the series' mix of naturalism and cliché that might be termed traditional: Its roots are in the French New Wave, which combined documentary flow with a passion for Hollywood studio movies. Most specifically it recalls François Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player," about a traumatized concert pianist hiding out playing rinky-tink jazz in a dive bar, when gangsters arrive to threaten his family.
The more "The Eddy" wants to advance the central plot, the less effective it becomes; whenever it soaks in the world, or homes in on small details, it comes alive. It's common enough for writers to force their characters into making bad decisions in order to prolong or hurry along a story; I have often yelled at a screen things along the line of, "Just go to the police!" or "Talk to one another!" even though there would be no show otherwise. ("Why didn't you tell us anything, bro?" says Eddy trumpeter Ludovic Louis.) But over an eight-hour season, during which mistakes will have to be made more often than not, this can seem especially artificial, or anyway foolish. Why does Elliot, who is concerned about the actual physical safety of his daughter, never send her somewhere safer? Because their relationship is on a long arc to understanding, and the script needs to keep her near.
Though he dominates the series, Holland is also limited by it. For one thing, he has the burden of playing a genius, which we have to take more or less on faith: He doesn't perform, until the textbook point where he has to. The music he writes for his band — composed by hit-making popsmith Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, who appears as the Eddy's pianist — is fine, but not especially memorable or forward-looking. (There is a nice moment when a famous singer, an old national treasure played by Tchéky Karyo, tells Elliot, to Elliot's seeming chagrin, "It's much better than the jazz I'm used to — boppy poppy. I like it, really." But it's true.) It's not surprising to learn that they were written before Jack Thorne ("His Dark Materials") put together a screenplay.
The greater burden is that Holland's required to carry the most conventional elements of the story, while other characters have more freedom to live their lives, to behave, to be — which is not to say those lives are not troubled. The bigger issues — the fate of the club, keeping the band together, getting signed, making a record — are almost beside the point. They feel orchestrated, not improvised, less an accurate picture of musicians' lives than something chipped off an old backstage drama. On the other hand, a scene where a New Orleans-style memorial turns into an Arabic jam session is as beautiful a five minutes as you will find in a thousand hours of television; it doesn't advance the plot, but it shows you something believable.
Even the dialogue improves the further it gets from the central storylines. Indeed, some of these side trips — as when we follow Jude (Damian Nueva), the band's bassist, through an encounter with an ex-girlfriend on her way to be married, or when Sim (Adil Dehbi), who provides a shy love interest for Julie, tries to raise money to send his grandmother to Mecca — could stand on their own as short films. Nueva and drummer Lada Obradovic, who get relatively big parts, in episodes named for their characters, are fine natural actors. Each episode is named for a character, except for the last, which is titled — wait for it — "The Eddy," and I suppose you could say that one's named for all of them.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)