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Netflix’s The Get Down is a head-spinning, exhausting, deeply fun TV show

Everything that happens on this teen drama is the biggest thing to ever have happened.

The Get Down
Shaolin’s the DJ that we call Fantastic...
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every single episode of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Netflix series about the early days of hip-hop, feels like a season finale.

Every installment is packed with huge moments, even bigger montages, and emotional landmines constantly threatening to explode. It’s a show that ratchets up the sound design even in its quiet moments. It never met a volume dial it couldn’t turn up to 11.

This is a perverse part of the series’ charm, especially in the five-episode second half of the series’ first season. (The six-episode first half, which debuted in August 2016, took a little while to get going but eventually settled into a nice groove.) Because the show is about teenagers, it can get away with this kind of raw, full-throttle emotionalism. These kids, like all kids, think they’re the first to feel the raw passion of first love, or the anxiety that comes from fearing you might make a choice that will screw up your entire future.

But it can also feel like the series is trapping its audience inside a massive collage. There’s no moment in the show that can’t be interspliced with 17 other moments, no song that can’t be mashed up with some other performance happening in some completely separate storyline.

That turns The Get Down, ultimately, into a bit of a curiosity. I wish it would learn even 5 percent more modulation, but I also love how its go-for-broke spirit is like nothing else out there. I’m a sucker for a TV show that tries something brand new, even if it doesn’t succeed all of the time, and that description fits The Get Down to a T.

In this second batch of episodes, the Get Down Brothers have their backs against the wall

The Get Down
Mylene and her friends watch as their career hits the stratosphere.

The first half of the season concluded with the Get Down Brothers — the series’ central hip-hop group — having a triumphant performance that announced their presence to their Bronx neighborhood. And because the series is narrated by the future version of one of these characters, we know some degree of success is around the corner.

Yet in season one, part two, the nascent musical group is still hustling for performance venues and contracts, even as their old pal Mylene Cruz is seeing success with her burgeoning disco career. (To watch this show, you have to be willing to go with the idea that every new musical genius, in multiple genres, in 1970s New York grew up in the same neighborhood of the Bronx.) Success isn’t going to come easily, nor should it.

This second half of the season hops forward about a year, to 1978, then traces what happens as many of the conflicts introduced in the first half are turned up toward boiling. Will Mylene’s minister father learn that her career is tilting in a sexier direction? You’d better believe it. Will DJ Shaolin Fantastic’s flirtations with criminality catch up to him? Of course. And will Ezekiel “Zeke” “Books” Figuero be forced to choose between his musical future and his potential attendance at Yale? Yes, yes, and again yes.

One of the nice things about The Get Down’s pedal-to-the-metal aesthetic is that it neatly plays up how, when you’re a teenager, everything feels like your last chance, but it’s never actually your last chance, because you’re 17, and you have (hopefully) 60 or 70 more years ahead of you.

All of the conflicts I listed above are visited and revisited and revisited, with episodes ending with seemingly THE LAST WORD on any given subject, before the next episode immediately goes about reversing said last word. (One episode suggests a few members of The Get Down Brothers will never perform with them again, and the next episode undoes that in about five minutes.)

That might seem like sloppy story construction. Hell, at several points in this first season, it is sloppy story construction. But The Get Down gets away with it thanks to how neatly it captures the feeling of being an artistically inclined teen who sees literally anything going on around them as potential inspiration or fodder for future projects. Parents and other authority figures try to ground that ambition for a little while, but it never takes for very long.

That, in some ways, is a neat encapsulation of the show itself. You could sit here and nitpick it on dozens of levels (the adult storylines, for instance, are usually pretty bad), but it’s almost like its flaws make it stronger. Like most teenagers, it’s messy, big-hearted, and possessed of grand dreams.

Also, the show is now occasionally animated, because why not?

The Get Down
Never say this show isn’t beautifully shot.

That ambition manifests itself in numerous ways. Sometimes, it’s in the series’ second-to-none soundscapes, which make the whole of 1970s New York feel like it’s grooving on the same, hidden beat. Sometimes, it’s in the way the show will suddenly start cross-cutting from story to story in haphazard, thrillingly reckless ways, like its attention is split in a million directions. And sometimes, it comes in animated sequences that serve almost as a de facto Saturday morning cartoon version of the show, buried within the actual show. (The in-series explanation: These are animated versions of the comic book one character draws about The Get Down Bros.)

The point is that the series might not always make logistical sense, but it always makes emotional sense. This is how it feels to be 17 and slip out from under your parents’ thumb to explore the city with your friends, or how it feels to have your first kiss, or even how it feels to realize what your life’s purpose is.

Guirgis and Luhrmann (who doesn’t direct any episodes in the season’s second half but whose Cuisinart-enabled editing style is everywhere) push every scene until it’s straining against its breaking point, then push even more. And more often than not, once they’ve pushed those extra few inches, they break through into some new, unexpected territory, where a story you’ve heard before — kids in a band, falling in love, having fun! — feels like it’s being told to you for the first time.

None of this would work without the cast, and the performers assembled for the pilot, many of whom are complete newcomers, are much more comfortable in their roles this time around. (As mentioned, it’s the adults who sometimes seem as if they’re not quite sure what to make of the show’s aching sincerity.)

In particular, Justice Smith and Shameik Moore (as Zeke and Shaolin, respectively) have a hard-fought brotherhood that holds even the season’s shakier portions together. These are two young men who couldn’t be more different but also couldn’t have more in common. Everything that should split them apart only pushes them right back together, and Smith and Moore make lovely work of both their growing dependence on each other and the hints of resentment that surface from time to time.

Even as I can consult my notes on the show to find my various complaints about The Get Down, I never really want to. In its forthright emotionalism, its overarching ambitions, and its complete and total devotion to telling this story as sincerely as possible, The Get Down is like nothing else out there.

I don’t blame you if it gives you a headache. But I love living inside its endless throb.

The Get Down is streaming on Netflix.

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