I can’t recommend The Get Down as effusively as I’d like.
For most people, I imagine, the first six episodes of the show’s 12-episode first season — which, due to production issues, Netflix has opted to release in two parts, with the remaining six episodes arriving in 2017 — will seem very messy indeed.
The first episode feels nothing like the five that follow, and way too much of the dialogue has characters explaining things to each other that they would probably already know, just so the audience can keep up. At all times, it’s very obvious that The Get Down started production before the creative team really knew what it was.
The idea of making a series about kids coming of age against the backdrop of the Bronx in the late '70s and the nascent hip-hop scene is a good one. But it’s also not a natural TV premise so much as it’s a movie premise.
The Get Down’s storylines lurch forward awkwardly. Major conflicts are set up in one episode, then resolved almost immediately in the next. And there are whole plot lines and characters — like, say, everything having to do with Giancarlo Esposito as a minister — that are profoundly unconvincing.
But good Lord, when The Get Down works, it’s transcendent. It wants to turn the process of creating art into a TV show, and while its first six episodes struggle to fill that tall order, the moments when it delivers on it are magical.
And what’s encouraging is that there are more and more of those moments in every episode as the season goes on.
Let’s look at what works, what doesn’t work, and what’s just off the wall about the first six episodes of The Get Down. And be forewarned: Spoilers for the first six episodes follow.
Works: the music is tremendous
The Emmys usually shunt their awards for below-the-line crafts to a separate ceremony, unlike the Oscars, where the visual effects and editing awards are handed out right alongside everything else. As such, it’s easy to miss who wins the Emmy in categories like lighting design and sound editing, and it’s easy to not particularly care too much about those awards.
But when the 2017 Emmys roll around, I’m going to be pretty upset if The Get Down doesn’t win the awards’ sound categories. The series is crammed with music, featuring everything from recognizable late-'70s hits to songs written specifically for the show’s characters to perform. (I’m particularly partial to "Set Me Free," an original disco tune that pops up late in the half-season.)
But what’s more impressive than just the use of that music is the way the show blends it all together, at times creating the kind of vibrant creative environment in which hip-hop was born, right there on the soundtrack.
By frequently cross-cutting images and overlapping different sounds, The Get Down’s creative team achieves a collage effect, so that events happening in completely separate parts of New York City end up providing the soundtrack for each other, until dialogue and two or three different pieces of music mesh together into a seamless whole.
When it works, it’s a staggering feat of sound engineering. And even when it doesn’t work, it’s so propulsive and exciting that it will keep you going until the next time everything gels. These moments alone make the show worth watching.
Doesn’t work: the first episode is too long, with minimal payoff
The biggest hurdle for prospective Get Down fans will be to make it through the series’ first episode, a 90-minute, overly indulgent mess that takes roughly 40 minutes to stop clearing its throat and start telling a story.
Netflix shows often have this problem, and The Get Down overcomes its failure to launch much more quickly than some of the streaming service’s other shows have. (Ahem, Bloodline.) But it’s still frustrating to watch that first episode, see that you’re 40 minutes into it, and realize that nothing of consequence has happened yet. It’s all setup, with the expected promise of payoff … somewhere down the line.
To a degree, this is typical for Baz Luhrmann, the mad genius Australian film director who shepherded The Get Down to the small screen (though he directs only the first episode).
Luhrmann’s most acclaimed film, Moulin Rouge!, opens with roughly 20 minutes of extreme cross-cutting and in-your-face style that seems designed to hold the audience at a remove. But once you push past it, the more nakedly emotional moments are all the more stunning, because the film used its opening 20 minutes to accustom you to its style.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the first episode of The Get Down; it feels a little like Luhrmann without any filters whatsoever. Once the story becomes about the show’s central kids trying to con their way into a club for a night of music and fun, it starts to take form, and few directors are better than Luhrmann at capturing the way pop music can make you feel like gravity no longer affects you. But, boy, that first episode is a tough sit.
Works: the kids are perfectly cast
If there’s one thing that elevates The Get Down, even in that trying first episode, it’s that the show’s kids are so note-perfect from the very first frame. The coming-of-age story is one TV has told before, but rarely in this particular time period, and rarely about people of color. If The Get Down lives up to its potential, it could become not just the great drama about the '70s, but one of the first great dramas primarily about teen boys.
Where much of pop culture (especially in the film and video game industries) is directly aimed at guys in their teens and 20s, television has a more hit-or-miss record with presenting the stories of this particular group. And what The Get Down captures beautifully is the way that young men with creative drive and spark, even at a young age, can find that creativity pushed even further by competition and rivalry.
The show’s central character is budding poet and politician Ezekiel (known on stage as MC Books). Played by Justice Smith, Ezekiel starts the series a quiet, sensitive type, but even in the first six episodes, he’s figuring out how to make those characteristics work for him. Indeed, at first glance it seems The Get Down is setting him up to pine for his love interest for season after season, but nope. The two sleep together at the end of episode three.
Smith is perfectly balanced by Shameik Moore as the slightly older, slightly more volatile Shaolin Fantastic, a wannabe DJ who meets up with Ezekiel and sparks a love-hate friendship that frequently vacillates between its two extremes, sometimes in the same conversation. The pair, along with several of Ezekiel’s other friends, start a group called The Get Down Crew and take the Bronx by storm.
Meanwhile, Ezekiel’s crush, Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) has her own dreams of becoming a disco queen, which are thwarted by her minister father (the aforementioned Esposito). This storyline feels thinner than the others, but it eventually finds another gear, and Guardiola is good throughout.
Doesn’t work: the dialogue needed another pass
Too often, The Get Down’s characters just say what they’re feeling, or recap what’s happened so far, to make sure the audience doesn’t get lost.
And to be sure, one of the functions of music in a musical is to allow characters to express the feelings they can’t figure out how to talk about. The problem, then, is that when people just open up about their heart’s desire to everybody they meet, the songs feel that much less special.
But in The Get Down’s first six episodes, there are instances when Ezekiel will rap over footage from some of the previous episodes about the events that have taken place so far, for no real reason. Or there are times when one of the show’s authority figure characters will simply start lecturing the younger characters in order to set up some of the series’ larger themes about being true to yourself while still trying to put good out into the world. These moments are usually clumsy, and they sometimes stop the show dead in its tracks.
Brilliant and off-the-wall: the creation sequences are unlike anything else
I don’t think I’ve seen a TV show that quite captures the work of creating art as well as The Get Down does. In its second episode, no less, Shaolin spends seemingly days trying to get his first beat exactly right — with the help of a record, a purple crayon, and the friends who don’t abandon him, even though hearing the same few moments of one song over and over and over again clearly makes them want to.
At its best, The Get Down lives in those moments, when various elements of the world outside come together to create something perfect in somebody’s brain, and a new song is born.
These sequences can sometimes feel a little like the show is just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks — as when a washed-up producer hears three girls harmonizing on the subway and realizes that, hey, he might just know what his next song will sound like. But there’s an openness and purity of spirit to all of them that is difficult to resist, even when you might really want to.
The Get Down is, on some level, a celebration of the exuberance of youth and the vitality of art. But it’s also about how if you leave your ears open to the world around you, there’s a soundtrack accompanying you everywhere. I don’t think the series has quite figured everything out yet, but I’m still so glad I watched it.
The Get Down is streaming on Netflix.