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Netflix’s newest drama, the Baz Luhrmann 1970s fever- dream The Get Down, is definitely not its best. Already mired in delays and showrunner changes (Shawn Ryan, best known for his gritty FX cop drama The Shield, left early on in production and Luhrmann, the director behind Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, took on the showrunning duties), it’s impressive that the show has made it this far. Judging from the show’s initial three episodes (which were released for critics), The Get Down might have benefited from several more months of creative reworking.
Now, The Get Down isn’t a bad show. It’s not even the worst original series on Netflix (that would be a toss-up between Hemlock Grove and Marco Polo). Instead, it’s a show with a serious split personality. It might be residual thematic and tone issues stemming from the showrunner switch (the pilot, which was directed by Luhrmann but feels like a creative mishmash of Shawn Ryan’s grit and Luhrmann fantastical notions, suffers the most from this creative disconnect), but after watching the first three episodes, I can’t figure out what type of show The Get Down wants to be.
The most watchable, and the incredibly interesting, elements of the show are those steeped in music. From the spectacle of a disco scene that draws you in with flash, music, and great dancing, to a rap battle held at a Bronx Get Down, the series shines when its talented cast is given a chance to show off. Say what you will about 1977 (the year in which the series opens), but the combination of music, dance, and vibrant color translate shockingly well to the screen.
And boy is The Get Down’s young cast talented. Shameik Moore (Shaolin Fantastic) has charisma coming out his ears, Herizen Guardiola (Mylene Cruz) has a spectacular voice (although her dramatic acting chops could use some development), and Justice Smith (Ezekiel “Books” Figuero) makes for an engaging emotional center to the series. If the show was about these three and their friends as they attempted to navigate the changing racial, ethnic, political, and musical tapestry of the late 1970s, The Get Down would be a solid, if not spectacular, musical drama. But, for some reason, that’s not the case.
A strangely large portion of the show is spent looking at the political corruption within New York City. Sure, Jimmy Smits playing a local community leader in the Bronx who has the power to influence city elections sounds great on paper, but when this subplot is thrown into the mix it only serves to muddy the water. Add to that a local female gangster and her particularly odious son, and a young Hispanic street gang, and things just get murkier and murkier.
I’m not expecting a show set in 1977 in the Bronx to be sunshine and lollipops, but throwing in subplots that appear to come from nowhere and that don’t impact the show’s central characters (Shaolin, Mylene, and Zeke) or only touch them peripherally makes little to no narrative sense. These subplots are also accompanied by real footage from 1977, which, due to its grainy nature, throws off the entire visual palette of the series. When we are watching the technicolor fantasy of a Get Down and then immediately shown black and white archive footage of 1977 street scenes, the juxtaposition only serves to make the new footage look fake and draws the audience out of the actual plot of the piece.
And that brings us back to the inconsistent tone of the show. If Luhrmann wants The Get Down to be the story of teenagers experiencing the cultural change of the late 1970s, he needs to make that the focus of the show. If Luhrmann wants the piece to be steeped in the fantastical flair that permeates the musical interludes and the pilot, he needs to keep that same style throughout the series. But if this is supposed to be a coming of age story that drags these characters from their safe place of music and creativity into the depths of gang and drug violence, well, that’s a completely different story than the one that is being told throughout most of the initial three episodes.
Righting this ship means finding a visual style and a story arc and sticking to it. It means cleaning up dialogue that is stilted and awkward throughout. It means cutting the cast down to characters that matter. And it means letting the show’s stars shine without focusing on the unnecessary and dull adults in this world- even if that means losing some great veteran actors who just don’t work within the piece.
The Get Down premieres the first six episodes of its 12 episode first season on August 12 on Netflix.