So it happens that The Get Down is out, and it turns out that The Get Down is good. The problem, though, is that the Netflix’s Baz Luhrmann–helmed, $10 million-per-episode series is only halfway out and isn’t immediately good. Just as The Get Down’s first season has taken its sweet time to arrive (and has only delivered six of its promised 13 episodes), the show stretches out the process of setting the stage within its fictional universe. Not everyone will have the stamina to sit through the initial three or four episodes — the pilot alone, personally directed by Luhrmann, runs to the length of a feature film — and wait for all the characters and plots to come to glorious maturity. Thoughtful viewers and viewers skeptical of Luhrmann’s overwrought aesthetic may sprain an eyebrow by keeping it raised for so many hours. How to pass time, suspend disbelief? One of the few things The Get Down doesn’t hesitate to spell out is that, for better and worse, it’s a pretentious show, so why not keep interested by doing some pretending of one’s own? Here are six things to pretend about The Get Down while waiting for its isolated sparks of excellence to catch fire.
1. Pretend that parts of its hip-hop history aren’t hilariously off-beat.
Though mostly set in 1977, The Get Down delivers no small amount of exposition in retrospective, as the male protagonist Ezekiel Figuero, on center stage facing an arena crammed with fans in 1996, raps about events 19 years past. As one would expect of a show which counts Nas (the deliverer of the verses circa ‘96) as an executive producer and Grandmaster Flash as a consultant, a great deal of the history of hip-hop the show presents is accurate. Hip-hop started out as an exercise in record-spinning beat breaks at parties and gradually evolved to incorporate rhymed verses delivered by a spoken voice. Less on point, though, are Ezekiel’s verses themselves. It’s not that the bars that burst through the lips of ‘70s-era Zeke are bad — on the contrary, they’re expressive, intelligent, and intricately rhymed. But the art of rhyming in 1977 had barely advanced beyond the Stone Age. Early hip-hop verses were simplistic, party-oriented chants which resembled the rhyming couplets in Dolemite far more than they did Zeke’s agile weaving of multiple rhyme schemes. Likewise, the odds seem nonexistent that Zeke, as a rap superstar in 1996, would be delivering itemized autobiographical narratives before a giant crowd — in 1996, the only rap superstars were gangster rappers. And of course the idea that a rapper so prominent in 1996 would have been a teenager in 1977 is dubious at best when one considers that Tupac, Nas, and Biggie were 6, 4, and 5 years old, respectively, in 1977. Pretend none of this matters: When it comes to Zeke’s verbal technique, the easiest way to overlook its anachronism is to enjoy its excellence.
2. Pretend the dialogue isn’t totally unrealistic.
Clunky dialogue is hardly new to television shows, and it’s not an issue for the most part. Television characters aren’t supposed to talk like human beings do in real life, and viewers would probably hate them if they did. The thing with The Get Down, though, is that the show is centered around the birth of hip-hop, a genre of music which has language — specifically black American language — at its core. The language of hip-hop isn’t distinct from the dialect African-Americans use in daily conversation with one another, and that dialect is one where the awkward, dissonant, and particulate elements of standard white English have already been snipped off and slurred so as to increase speed and maximize rhythm. The tones typical of rap are the tones typical of address between two speakers fluent in black American English — if that weren’t the case, white people would have counterfeited rap a long time ago. But the language that Zeke and his associates use with one another, penned by Luhrmann and other non-native black American speakers, shares nothing in common with the language they use as they rap, which was composed by actual hip-hop artists. It’s hard to believe that the hero of The Get Down is a rap prodigy when he (and everyone else around him) conducts such inefficient, stilted dialogues in regular life. Pretend that doesn’t matter, if you can.
3. Pretend it’s an extremely expensive music video.
This shouldn’t be hard to do. Like the main characters in music videos, the main characters are musical artists and their lives revolve around musical performances and they all know how to dance extremely well. And the ancillary, nonmusical characters are exaggerated and cartoonish in precisely the same way that ancillary, nonmusical characters in nonmusical skits set in the middle of music videos have to be. Actually, what’s hard is not treating this television show like a music video.
4. Pretend The Get Down is yet another recent novel that trades heavily in ‘70 nostalgia — but better.
Remember the giant New York City blackout of summer 1977? If you’ve read contemporary literary fiction, you might as well have. Perhaps inspired by the blackout’s featuring prominently in Don DeLillo’s 1997 magnum opus Underworld, more recent novels like Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Garth Risk Hallberg City on Fire have devoted no small amount of their sizeable length to coverage of the blackout and its aftermath. Like Kushner and Hallwell’s novels (but unlike DeLillo’s), The Get Down is heavily invested in making fetish objects out of the styles and events of the ‘70s. Unlike Kushner and Hallwell’s novels, it more or less succeeds in convincing us that the ‘70s were a more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating decade than our own. Part of this has to do with the medium: While Kushner and Hallberg were stuck with words to render their nostalgia convincing, The Get Down’s devoted a big chunk of its mammoth development budget to generating perfect reproductions of the era’s fashion and music. If you think sitting through the first four hours of the show is taxing, imagine how long it would take you to read Kushner (400 pages) or Hallberg (944 pages), and how much less pleasant that would be, and how many fewer promising characters and actors of color you would come across.
5. Pretend it’s a video game.
With its main characters constantly torn by choices between equally promising (or unsavory) options, The Get Down often reminded me of Life Is Strange, one of last year’s best new video games. With its investment in recreating the ambience of a bygone era, its joyriding in tricked-out cars, and its casual approach to criminal life, the show reminded me of Grand Theft Auto. I almost expected Zeke, like Life Is Strange’s heroine, to use his power to rewind time after making a hard decision to see if the road not taken might not be better after all. I could almost see the GTA-esque circles of light delineating the entrance to key establishments. As with any role-playing game, I wished I could press (X) to skip all the early scenes made up of ham-handed plot exposition and character introduction. But this wish was not granted.
6. Pretend that, even taking into account all of its obvious flaws, the show is vibrant and important and deeply moving in the way that only an overstated, over-budget, overtime, hip-hop-origin extravaganza can be.