[This is a review of The Get Down series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
2016 has been an uneven year for television dramas set around music – the industry, the creative side, or anywhere in between. HBO’s Vinyl blew in like a hurricane with its Martin Scorcese-directed premiere, but the gale force of the director’s efforts soon gave way to another nine episodes that hung like tepid virga and evaporated before reaching the earth. Meanwhile, Showtime’s Roadies took the road less traveled – in that it’s not lifting whole characters from Mad Men – in its monologue-heavy examination of the behind-the-scenes family dynamics that go into making a band’s cross-country tour function. Neither series was or has been particularly well received by most critics and the ratings (and subsequent post-renewal cancelation of Vinyl) suggest the magic of making music has yet to translate into a transcendent weekly viewing experience.
All that is set to change when Netflix drops The Get Down, a bustling, vivid, and often wildly extravagant look at the birth of hip-hop in the late 1970s. Presented largely through the eyes of Ezekiel (Justice Smith), a young “wordsmith” in love with his childhood friend Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), an aspiring disco star, the series follows him and his attendants, brothers Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.), and graffiti artist Marcus ‘Dizzie’ Kipling (Jaden Smith), as he discovers a powerful new outlet for his heretofore-idle, unrecognized creativity. That discovery comes, in part, through a chance encounter with aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic (played by Dope star Shameik Moore) and a brief squabble over a rare record that means a shot at love for Ezekiel and a chance for Fantastic to study the Way of the Turntable under the tutelage of Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie).
The result of an oft delayed, exorbitantly expensive production (the series premieres two-and-a-half years after being announced with a reported $120 million price tag) The Get Down begins as a 90-minute episode directed by Luhrmann. All of the director’s trademark, propulsive flourishes are on display, as he dutifully imposes his penchant for lavish spectacle on an unlikely set of characters and setting: black and Latino youths living in the South Bronx during the late ’70s. Although such specifics are a far cry from the director’s gilded adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, many of the thematic elements remain the same.
At its core, The Get Down could be an even more potent distillation of the American Dream than the director’s anachronistic, green-screened vision starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Luhrmann’s characters here are underprivileged teens living in the outer boroughs, meaning the series’ approach to Ezekiel’s eventual rise (confirmed by an unnecessary opening sequence set in 1996) affords it an aspirational specificity missing from his most recent effort. At the same time, though, the confirmation of success so early on divests the story of some of its stakes, rechanneling the audience’s investment in Ezekiel and Shaolin Fantastic into one focused primarily on the latter’s influence on the former, while still finding time to address Ezekiel’s on again, off again romance with Mylene.
The premiere threatens to push the series into narrative math territory, but the expansive supporting cast that includes Jimmy Smits as local developer Francisco ‘Papa Fuerte’ Cruz and Giancarlo Esposito as Mylene’s overbearing father Pastor Ramon Cruz offers enough in the way of tangential story lines and developments to help fill the episode’s oversized runtime. The same is true of Shaolin’s subplot working at a nightclub, which introduces the series’ closest thing to an outright antagonist in “fly gangster” Cadillac, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II who imbues the character with so much hip-shaking disco swagger that he instantly becomes the most magnetic personality on the screen. Meanwhile, Ron Cephas Jones of Mr. Robot (well, formerly) as the Kipling brothers’ father, The Americans‘ Brandon J. Dirden as the boyfriend of Ezekiel’s aunt, and Yolanda Ross as English teacher Ms. Green ensure the series always has plenty going on and great actors getting it done, even in the periphery.
The series is filled to the brim, one that threatens to overflow at any moment. Given the director’s penchant for excess, it’s unsurprising to realize The Get Down may be overdoing it, even in the early goings. Between Papa Fuerte’s plans to build affordable housing for the Latino community, his brother’s railing against Mylene’s dreams of stardom and obvious acts of teenage rebellion, and a turf war between a Latino gang and the drug business headed up by Cadillac and his mother in their nightclub, there is so much going on in the first 90 minutes that if The Get Down didn’t anchor itself in Ezekiel’s efforts to prove his wordsmith bona fides, it might wind up adrift in an ocean of potential story lines. That is to say, the show is scattered during much of the first episode, and, for a series about the birth of rap, there’s surprisingly little of it – or hint of it – in the first 90 minutes. This raises a familiar question about yet another feature film director turning their attention toward serialized television and how the differences between film and TV presents some unique challenges in that, with so many hours to fill, the storytelling threatens to become overly diffuse.
In this instance, the expectation may have been for Luhrmann to overindulge in the Netflix binge-watch model that turns the streaming giant’s original programs into 8 to 13-hour films more than it does TV series. But, as The Get Down moves from its premiere into the first 6 of 12 planned episodes (the latter half is expected to drop in 2017), the series demonstrates a surprising willingness to play the episode game. That shift away from over-serialization doesn’t just lend later installments a chance to focus on smaller, easier-to-digest story lines; it makes Ezekiel’s mic drop at the end of the premiere a far more satisfying conclusion to the feature-length opener than if episode 2 had picked up immediately afterward.
There is still plenty of room for the show to grow and to explore its relationship not only with the central characters, their neighborhood, and socio-economic circumstances, but also the conceit of the series itself. Watching The Get Down can sometimes feel like the series isn’t as focused on the core element as it could be – it leans a bit too much on the aforementioned 1996 flash forward as justification for this – but at the same time, Lurhmann, along with Grandmaster Flash and a terrific ensemble of young actors, has created such a vibrant, lived-in setting at the center of this wild new series it’s hard to question his methods.
In the end, The Get Down may be a mess at times, but it’s a mess with some serious ambition. It’s hard to fault a series for being chaotic when it’s aspiring to do something as entertaining as this series is.
The Get Down episodes 1-6 are available in their entirety on Netflix.