TV Review: Don’t Sit Down for “The Get Down”
Last month, Netflix released the first six episodes of The Get Down. The remaining six episodes will be released sometime in 2017, but… I won’t be watching them.
Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Gatsby) created the series along with Stephen Adly Guirgis, and the show is exactly what you’d expect from Luhrmann — lots of singing, dance offs, and dizzying scene transitions.
The first challenge of the The Get Down is just getting through the first episode. Directed by Lurhmann himself, it clocks in at an exhausting hour and a half. The show has a frenetic pulse, and attempts to give us a glimpse of all of 70s pop culture: Graffiti! Disco! Rap! Breakdancing! But then it will slow down for some sweet, sentimental moments as well. It’s a bit of a ride, but without an addictive, edge-of-your-seat quality, you’re not exactly willing to hang on.
The show is set in the South Bronx in 1977, which is a burning, rubble-filled warzone. I expected a more visually appealing show from Luhrmann, but he kept the beauty and flash in the discos. Out in the streets, everyone is hot, sweaty, and covered in polyester.
The show incorporates vintage footage, which is a really interesting way to portray life at the time. It also represents how the series is set up, combining actual events like the blackout in South Bronx with fictional scenarios like settling a heated argument about bootlegging with a DJ battle.
The main character, Ezekiel Figaro (Justice Smith), is the driving force of the show. Smith is an excellent actor, and he portrays a thoughtful young rapper with aplomb. His love interest is Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola), who is an aspiring disco singer trapped under her minister father’s thumb. Smith and Guardiola are exceptional, capably leading the show. One of the best scenes occurs in the first episode, where Zeke confesses his love to Mylene. She brutally turns him down, and the scene is raw and emotional. What’s also impressive is the fact that Guardiola is actually singing in the series.
One of the best parts of The Get Down is watching Zeke in the midst of his creative process: writing and rapping about his life. But there’s not nearly enough of that for a show that’s about the birth of hip hop. Occasionally, the show will flash forward to Zeke rapping in front of a huge audience, essentially narrating the episode. The lyrics are written by Nas, who is also an executive producer. But what about Mylene? Her singing career is a good portion of the show’s plot.
And then there’s Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). Who is really cool, with an even cooler name, but I just can’t figure out his purpose on the show. He does a lot of martial arts in the beginning of the series (cue the sound effects), but then that kind of dies off. And he starts out as mysterious loner, but then becomes inseparable from Zeke and his friends. And within the group, Zeke emerges as the leader, not Shao.
Shao’s “sensei” is the one and only Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). Flash challenges Shao to learn new DJ skills and imparts some pretty poignant life lessons, which are lost in the rest of the storylines.
Jimmy Smits is another great addition to the cast as Francisco Cruz. Smits does a great job playing a complicated character who is trying to rebuild the community, but isn’t exactly an upstanding citizen.
The Get Down hits a lot of dead ends as the series goes on. There are hints at some interesting plot lines that unfortunately fizzle out: Shao has a reputation for graffiti when he first meets the boys, but then just stops. Mylene has several false starts at her singing career. Zeke is slated to start a prestigious internship, and then shows up late and loses it.
Halfway through the series, Mylene’s singing is occasionally overlapped with Zeke’s rap lyrics. It’s only for a few fleeting moments, and I wish we saw more of that. It really ties everything together.
With all the fits and starts in the series, everything seems to happen in the last episode. Zeke enters the political scene by speaking at a mayoral event, eloquently quoting graffiti from around the neighborhood. He shows up at the DJ battle between The Get Down Brothers and Notorious 3 just in time. Predictably, they win when they break out Mylene’s new single. Mylene signs with a label, jumpstarting her career as a disco singer.
The pace of the show, and the lengthy episodes are definitely the downfalls for The Get Down. While Luhrmann’s movies have been notoriously long (i.e., Australia), a television series is a whole other animal. And Luhrmann was extremely generous with his time: most of the episodes are an hour long.
The Get Down never finds a good tempo. The plot is stretched too thin through the middle, and crams most of the action in the final episode. And at a whopping $7.5 million per episode, it hardly seems worth the investment.