Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dear TV Gods...

An urgent prayer for the near-perfect The Get Down to unite its exceptional, but disconnected, parts

The Get Down, Netflix's newest scripted drama, has a lot to love on paper: created by Oscar-nominated and personal favorite Baz Luhrmann, a cast made up nearly entirely of black and Latinx actors, a raw and honest setting, and a plot that is both fantastical and historically honest. On screen, however, not all of these great traits retain their greatness, resulting in a show that struggles to balance TV show format with cinematic grandeur, and characters that don't get the depth and development they deserve. 

Before entering the world of The Get Down it's important to note that you will be treated to stunning visuals and vibrant colors, a pulsating soundtrack to guide you through each episode, and multiple storylines converging and clashing at a moment's notice. This is what filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, (who is most recognized for his rhapsodic Moulin Rouge!), does best, and it is a success in The Get Down as well. Separately, these components of a Luhrmann production all make the transfer from film to TV successfully, so successfully that the operatic climaxes of Episodes 1, 3, and 6 is sure to give any viewer chills. However, when combining these elements into a cohesive, television format, the end result is not as fulfilling. When watching a Baz Luhrmann film, the rapid acceleration of songs and visuals and the constantly moving parts of characters and stories are intentionally building to a massive climatic collision that ends the movie on a high. But in TV- and in The Get Down in particular- episodes that aren't finales must have softer endings and plot-lines remaining unresolved amidst all the sensory-overload in order to keep the audience intrigued episode after episode. 

Perhaps Netflix and the binge-watching phenomenon is to blame; given the ability to binge all 6 episodes of a show means episodes needn't end traditionally, and stylistic flourishes alone can drive a show that is meant to be completed in one sitting. But what is most frustrating about The Get Down is that the themes and political nuances presented prove that high-quality writing is thriving under all the stylistic embellishments. In the quiet moments of the show, where Ezekiel (Justice Smith) recites his painful poetry or Dizzee (Jaden Smith) rebels against lawmakers with his graffiti art, viewers are shown the simple, aching beauty of life in the Bronx and the people that contributed to its history. In the quieter moments, viewers are told "leaders are going to lead" as the primary theme of the show, and we get to witness it's complexities when Ezekiel struggles to take control of his career, both musically and politically, while Shaolin (Shameik Moore) continually slides back into the lacky-position under Fat Annie (Lillias White). The complex theme of leadership and the skewering of political misguidance are this show's greatest strengths, and the show is soaring highest when these strengths are combined equally with the explosive flair of Luhrmann productions, rather than when they take a backseat to it.

Furthering the battle of style-over-substance is the characters that populate The Get Down. Viewers are given a taste of the rich character-pool the show will dive into in the first episode by rapidly fluttering from scene to scene, introducing us to ample amounts of two-dimensional characters that can expand as the series goes on. But sadly, as viewers complete the first set of six episodes, we realize that the glances from Episode 1 is all we will get. Upon completion of the available episodes, it is apparent that most characters are being used solely to progress plots or express the aforementioned themes of the show, as compared to growing and developing amongst a changing plot and against the backdrop of said themes. This realization of permanently-2D characters is frustratingly apparent in Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) and her father, the former who displays intelligence and independence when working for her music career, but foolishness and immaturity when dealing with Ezekiel for no reason other than to accentuate the drama of their relationship. The latter, Mylene's father Pastor Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito), is given absolutely nothing to do but abuse and belittle his daughter -with a reasoning behind the abuse being "cartoonish", at best- until he suddenly turns a new leaf after being essentially black-mailed by his brother into supporting Mylene. It's unrealistic, and it's an unfortunate waste of a potentially-riveting character arc for both Mylene and her father. But the most disappointing character out of the crop of potentially-captivating group is Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Storming onto the scene as a colorful, psychotic drug-fiend, Cadillac had the most potential for an interesting arc. Perhaps he resents Fat Annie and attempts to take over her operation, wanting to be the leader he believes he could be. Or, perhaps the opposite, and he begs for Annie to bestow him with more trust, giving us the opportunity to see a new, more vulnerable side of Cadillac. Maybe these arcs are simply further down the line for Cadillac, but as of now, he is given storylines that only propel him further towards the stereotypical, basic "bad guy" archetype, once again, being used solely to progress the plot.

The Get Down has all the makings of an incredible show: a unique and lively plot, a huge crop of diverse characters, a setting with rich history and aesthetics, and a message that is broad in its impact and relevance. These great traits are also the show's pitfall, as it frequently suffers from over-abundance, leaving some characters to be forgotten, and style to overwhelm. If The Get Down can combine these many moving parts into one, cohesive TV production, I am sure it will go down as one of Netflix's greatest TV efforts. Experiencing this show is a true pleasure, one that I legitimately recommend to others, and one that I am eager to see develop and hopefully improve in future episodes and seasons. In it's current state, however, with Luhrmann's lush style and characters that remain stagnant throughout, it's easy to find yourself thinking after some episodes, "why wasn't this just a movie instead?"

Blessings and Afflictions

  • Blessing: The music! Being a Baz Luhrmann production, music is destined to be a key element of The Get Down, and it does not disappoint. Perhaps the biggest hit and most recognizable, 'Set Me Free', is a bona fide hit, but the epic track list doesn't end there. Check out the full album on iTunes for more of the stellar music from the show.
  • Blessing: Jaden Smith's 'Dizzee'! Teased by the other characters for being pretentious or too "artsy fartsy", Dizzee brings a fresh take at the "free-loving 70's" and his journey into famously boisterous queer clubs in their earliest stages. I appreciate the show's delicate but sincere look at a young man exploring himself and the unique communities around him, and I'm excited to see where Dizzee's journey leads him after his kiss with Thor.


 Mamoudou Athie as 'Grandmaster Flash'

It takes a great talent to be the essential heart of a show without being on screen every episode, and yet Athie accomplishes just that. Though focus may shift, it's Athie's sincere performance as the talented and passionate musician that roots The Get Down- and the characters Shaolin and Zeke- in its theme that music is power. Thank you, Saint Mamoudou

Stefanée Martin and Shyrley Rodriguez as 'Yolanda and Regina'

While Mylene may be the lead vocalist on a hit single, its her spunky sidekicks that are the stars of these 6 episodes. With touches of humor- like when the girls tease Mylene for her behavior with Zeke- and glimpses of seriousness- such as Martin's portrayal of an anxiety-filled teen on the verge of fame, and Rodriguez's somber experience helping Jackie Moreno after his overdose- these two hit all the right notes. Thank you, Saints Stefanée and Shyrley

Justice Smith as 'Ezekiel'
I might sound too much like Ezekiel's teacher when I say this, but this kid's got talent. Grappling with adulthood, young love, loss of parents, and being entangled in a war for the Bronx sounds like a lot for one teen to handle- and it is. But Smith's portrayal is genuine, raw, and poetic to keep audiences simultaneously rooting for Ezekiel, and cursing him when he makes a mistake. Ezekiel isn't perfect and still has a lot of growing up to do, but with Smith, I'm excited to see it all. Thank you, Saint Justice


1 comment:

  1. an exceptional bit of writing that makes me want to give this show a chance if only for the music.