tv The Get Down and the Show That Could’ve Been
When it premiered last summer, Baz Luhrmann’s early-days-of-hip-hop Netflix extravaganza The Get Down was as hyped as any streaming show has ever been. A big-name movie director given hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a musical epic about recent history necessarily generates splashy features and plentiful reviews. But a lot less attention has been paid to the show’s second batch of episodes, which went online a week ago. This is fair: The show wasn’t, and isn’t, great. Rumors of a troubled production process were confirmed by the fact that Netflix split season one into two parts so as to take more time on the later episodes—and the results of that chaos are apparent in the strained, hard-to-follow-and-harder-to-care-about saga on screen.
But it’s worth noting that on social media, The Get Down does seem to have attracted a devoted following. There’s a #RenewTheGetDown hashtag filled with shade for other Netflix shows that seem to be getting more marketing and critical love. And on Tumblr, affection for the series takes the form—as is typical for Tumblr—of pulling out delectable moments for gifs and analysis. Justice Smith’s Ezekiel Figuero goofily dancing in slow motion can’t help but create feelings of warmth. Fan obsession over a gay romance subplot involving Jaden Smith’s character Dizzy is a reminder that this show’s range of minority representation matters. And the visual attention to detail—even when transforming history into myth—can be impressive.
But all of that points to the notion that The Get Down, Parts 1 or 2, is best experienced as a series of discrete moments, reordered as a Pinterest board of visuals or a mixtape of song and dance numbers. If there is to be another season, it should come with a major behind-the-scenes overhaul.
The second episode batch picks up after the young rappers of The Get Down Brothers have successfully executed a pivotal performance, just as their soulful poet leader Ezekiel has begun to chart a path out of the Bronx by courting the favor of rich white Manhattanites offering internships, political connections, and a chance for admission at Yale. His girlfriend Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) also has big dreams, balancing a disco-singing career with the demands of her strict preacher father (Giancarlo Esposito). From those jumping-off points, Luhrmann and his team continue weaving stories about the teens’ ambition to conquer the world—or at least to escape the fate that most of their peers are consigned to—existing in tension with home and family. In Ezekiel’s case, that home continually links him to crime; in Mylene’s, a family member wants to exploit her success.
Smith remains an incredible find as a young actor, gravelly voiced and memorably lackadaisical in manner; he’s destined for stardom outside this show. Shameik Moore is another appealing presence, arguably misused here as the DJ and begrudging drug hustler Shaolin Fantastic—a character that Moore makes jarringly sympathetic even as he does some detestable things. And T.J. Brown Jr. as Boo-Boo, the youngest Get Down Brother, breaks through the noise of the series with beyond-his-years surliness. Unfortunately much of the other acting talent on display is obscured by writing that’s either one-note or inconsistent. There are, for example, only so many times you can watch Esposito appear as a near-parody of Christian uncharity—a fact the show eventually realizes and deals with in rote, upsetting fashion.
The stylistic overload continues: The Get Down veers back and forth among upbeat dance extravaganzas, rap-concert flashforwards, earnest love scenes, brief tributes to crime sagas or kung-fu movies, snippets of 1970s documentary footage, and—new for Part 2—animated sequences that no doubt helped Luhrmann address plot holes without needing to reshoot. The results are occasionally very memorable: an impromptu jam session in a bohemian hotel party, a sexually charged disco throwdown at a new competitor to Studio 54, a climactic rap slam where music’s peacebringing possibility is nearly made real. But there’s a lot of plotting to slog through in between such sequences; at times, it feels like the storylines intrude into what could be a run of sterling music videos.
The only form of conflict Luhrmann’s team seems to believe exists is the ultimatum.
To achieve a truly giddy, transporting, binge-worthy pastiche—clearly what Luhrmann wants—the writing would need to be stronger. The only form of conflict Luhrmann’s team seems to believe exists is the ultimatum: Do this unsavory thing or sacrifice your career, friendship, or life, usually because someone else will accept no compromises. High-stakes decisions are a key element of dramatic storytelling; they were also a daily reality for people surviving the economically ravaged 1970s Bronx. But the same can be said for negotiation, subversion, and just existing. When it feels every scene revolves around a forced existential dilemma, the results aren’t tense—they’re numbing.
It doesn’t help that the show handles its many story threads carelessly. One Get Down Brother is knocked out by poisoned drugs but recovers quickly with no real repercussions. The villainous disco freak Cadillac talks a lot about lusting after Mylene, hinting at an oncoming conflict that is mostly forgotten as a much larger one unfolds. Contracts are resisted, signed, and broken in very quick fashion.
Adding to the shame about the execution is the fact that these are fertile themes: Art really can be an escape from difficult circumstances, and hip-hop’s origins really were unique to a borough largely scorned by the rest of New York City. Which means it’s hard to root against a campaign like #RenewTheGetDown. Luhrmann has said that he believes there may be another season but that he doesn’t want to be as involved as he was in this one. Good: The Get Down has strong material to work with, but needs someone holding down a steadier beat.