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Netflix’s ‘The Get Down’ Is Incredible—and Chaotic

There's so much going on, we barely even have time to tell you Jaden Smith is in it.

You could call The Get Down a mess, and you'd probably be right. Netflix's new series is incredible and frustrating and strange; it's equal parts stylish and clumsy, exhibiting more life and flair than what feels like 80 percent of what's on television, but it also struggles when it comes to simple things like plotting and dialogue. Characters practically leap off the screen when introduced, and then mellow out before erratically spiking again. It's full of strange and inexplicable decisions, like the baffling choice to frame the whole series as a story being told by the main character via rap ballad performed in concert in the mid-'90s. It's also one of the coolest things I've seen all year.

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That story is about Ezekiel (street name "Books"), a Bronx teen with a gift for poetry, and Mylene, a preacher's daughter who wants to tear free of her Pentecostal upbringing and sing disco. Set on parallel paths, both gifted young people try to leverage their talents to find fame and escape the Bronx and maybe even—as they hope, in an on-again, off-again manner—end up together. Ezekiel's gift as a wordsmith draws him and his pals into the orbit of Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore, quite possibly the best part of the show), an aspiring DJ under the tutelage of Grandmaster Flash. Mylene's journey takes her from the church choir to the world of discotheques and record producers. Both find themselves intersecting with local politicians like Francisco "Papa Fuerte" Cruz (Jimmy Smits, who kills) and brushing up dangerously close to the dealers and gangbangers running rampant through a borough in shambles.

A synthesis of fact and fiction, The Get Down takes full advantage of its 1977 setting, culling from events and figures both real and imagined for its story. This is a story about kids falling in love with each other and music during disco's twilight and rap's nativity, as the Bronx burned and Ed Koch preached the gospel of broken windows to wage war on graffiti writers. Its central cast, led by Justice Smith as Ezekiel and Herizen Guardiola as Mylene Cruz, bounce off colorful characters both invented for the show and based on real people, like Grandmaster Flash. Central to the plot are real innovations that led to rap and hip-hop as we know it, like Quick-Mix Theory—the manual, vinyl-fueled precedent to looping beats.

The six available episodes have enough of an arc to feel like, if not a miniseries, then a decent first act in a two-act play.

The show doesn't really effectively manage its energy and pacing, and it often feels uneven—the first episode, an hour-and-a-half opus directed by showrunner and co-creator Baz Luhrmann, is garish and loud and feels entirely different from the rest of the series. (Depending on your feelings towards The Baz, this may come as a relief or a disappointment. Rest assured, regardless—by Baz standards, The Get Down is almost subdued in a way that either camp will probably find tolerable.) The dialogue can be painfully on the nose, the music doesn't always land the way it needs to, and the show might be spinning too many wheels at once.

Just how grievous each of the slights might be is kind of hard to gauge, however, because the first batch of six episodes that premiere on Netflix this Friday are not, technically, the entirety of season one. (A second half is scheduled to drop in early 2017.) To The Get Down's credit, the show doesn't feel like half a story—there's enough of an arc to make it feel like, if not a miniseries, then a fairly decent first act in a two-act play. This structural quirk puts a lot of pressure on the back half of the season; too many of the same hiccups and flaws in its closing act could be less forgivable. That said, it could also do what a Netflix show has never really done before: grow and develop over the course of its first season, if only a little bit.

That said, there really hasn't been anything like it on TV this year, and there probably won't be, either. It is ambitious and heartfelt and colorful, set against a fascinating backdrop that really comes alive in a way that few period dramas are able to manage. (Or contemporary ones, for that matter.) Like the intrepid DJs it features, it tries to put its finger on the pulse of a moment, to feel the crowd and make it move, with makeshift tools and sweaty fervor.

So hurry up and finish watching Stranger Things. The '80s were great, but your binge-watching deserves to dial it back another decade.

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