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Truth and Consequences TV

‘The Get Down,’ ‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ and the unreality on television

Netflix/USA/Ringer illustration
Netflix/USA/Ringer illustration

"That wackness. That bullshit."

That’s how Shaolin Fantastic, the aspiring DJ hero of The Get Down, describes the concept of vocals to Mylene, an aspiring singer hero on the show. (There are a lot of heroes on The Get Down.) The vocals are, of course, what draws in many listeners to music — the physical thread, the visceral connectivity. Mariah’s runs, Frank’s croon, Axl’s screech. Instruments and machines create sounds, but humans let it rip. We may hum the melody, but we memorize the words. Shaolin, played by Shameik Moore in the kind of electric performance that makes you wriggle in your seat, is a student of Grandmaster Flash, the DJ and legendary architect of hip-hop. He spends an entire episode in search of that perfect break in Lyn Collins’s "Think (About It)." That Shao doesn’t care for Donna Summer’s latest hit is a prejudice we can easily understand, even if it baffles Mylene. But their conversation, no matter the prickliness and humor, is stilted and strange. A DJ clarifies his personal code and professional mission to a young girl who desperately wants to sing. Words suck, I scratch. It all happens in the streets of the South Bronx, a bout of technical exposition in a florid and exploding world. It is a conversation that has never happened between two living souls, though we accept it.

The Get Down is an astonishing show, by turns involving, confusing, plainly bad, and inspiring. It was cocreated and ushered into the world by Baz Luhrmann, Australia’s arch-stylist director, and it smacks of many of his hallmarks: lavish costumes, a luxurious soundtrack, excellent dancing, and pure schmaltz. Every episode is long, and strident. Its equally outsized budget has been reported on ad infinitum. Justin Charity described it as the first great post-Empire drama, and perhaps only Luhrmann could out-ravish Lee Daniels with sheer aesthetic ejaculation.

In just a short time — the show’s first six episodes were added to Netflix on Friday — the internet detectives have done their fact-checks on the show, examining its historicity. There are problems. Mostly small things — a local politician is oddly rendered, a gritty street corner closely resembles Sesame Street. There are optical problems, too. When a character ODs and crashes out in a tub, needle jutting from his left arm, it’s a washed-up downtown record executive — not a resident of the Bronx. The 1977 timeline seems too convenient for many of the future story lines to make sense. (One character, the poetic teenage hero Ezekiel, grows up to be a circa-1996 rap star who is voiced by Nas but portrayed by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. It’s confounding, in more ways than one — Zeke would be around 35 in ’96. Even LL Cool J, perhaps the closest to a modern-day equivalent star of the era, was just 28 that year.) The cocooning of disco making its inevitable transmogrification into hip-hop is a rich cultural text, but it is often best when it’s just that — text. There are just too many details to make sense of it all in an elegant fashion.

The messiness of ’70s New York, a beautiful and tortured time that has been iterated on film and television over and over again, is at the heart of The Get Down. It’s been done before, if not like this. Luhrmann and his cadre of directors make an interesting choice: They splice real footage of New York streets — say, looters during the July ’77 blackout, or graffiti writers decorating subway train cars with Krylon — with recreated visions of those streets, featuring the show’s characters. The differences are bracing. The rough-hewn scratchiness we see in the real New York makes Luhrmann’s dress-up show seem quaint, and in a way, insensitive. This is docudrama, heavy on the drama. With a side of drama. Even when Luhrmann’s imprimatur starts to fade from view — and The Get Down slowly transforms into a delightfully springy melodrama somewhere around Episode 3 — it is impossible to forget that you’re watching what amounts to the pageant version of a raw, violent, ecstatic time in American artistic history. It is, in a word, fantastical. Which means it is fantastic, in its way.

The crisis of TV consumption is upon us, and it is enveloping weekends left and right. FX’s John Landgraf, who proclaimed the era of "Peak TV" in 2015 and predicted its inevitable slowdown last year, has rescinded his prediction. Last week, at a Television Critics Association summit, Landgraf said we may be years away from a downturn in show production. Next year, there may be as many as 450 American television shows in production. The war for eyes has been informed — some might say inflamed — by what critics dubbed "The Golden Age," a handy nickname that has curdled into an old saw delineating, essentially, the launch of The Sopranos through the conclusion of Mad Men. The proliferation of beloved, binged-on shows allowed for the rise of streaming services. Those services have massive budgets, and thus more shows. But it also instigated cable networks, premium providers, and content mavericks to find the holy grail of watching stuff. Viewership in, viewership out, like a port of call. Only those shows have changed — the Golden Age operated on the presumption of realism. Shows like The Shield, Deadwood, and Breaking Bad were rooted in practical, earthbound realities. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm was presented as faux-documentary. But that approach is gone. TV shows are untethered now. And give or take Game of Thrones +7 ratings, that perfect node of mass-consumption no longer exists — it probably hasn’t since Lost ceased production in 2010. But the pursuits come nevertheless.

The Get Down is the product of this pursuit. A big-tent show with no stars, hoping for 21st Century West Side Story, but willing to settle for Retro Pitch Perfect. This strain for audience comes in all forms. Of all the other summer shows, Stranger Things holds an all-too-rare title: The One We Didn’t See Coming. That Netflix can champion this show — one long, sweet, nostalgia-crusted wink at its audience of thirtysomethings with disposable income — in the same season as the much-ballyhooed and fretted over The Get Down is a testament to their $6 billion original programming and acquisitions budget, and also the wonders of taking big, fat risks. (Likewise, its best show, BoJack Horseman, which returned for a quietly rousing third season last month. Few networks would have funded a talking horse metasitcom for this long.)

Stranger Things, like its streaming service cohort, is haunted by phantasms. It’s sci-fi and magical realism and dream theater. It’s also Stand by Me and Gremlins and Trapper Keepers and Nintendo and dozens of other usefully check-marked references to recent youth culture. No matter what it wants us to know it knows, Stranger Things taps a vein that The Get Down can’t quite find. The dread is unreal. Perhaps because its monsters are 8 feet tall and have diaphanous, quaking mouths full of teeth for heads, rather than over-the-top gangsters like the ones we find in The Get Down’s Fat Annie and her son, the eruptive Cadillac. Or perhaps because there’s no cultural history of The Upside Down.

The goals of both shows are the same — the obsession of young audiences — but the stakes of Stranger Things are mystical, where The Get Down’s are formal. The latter is the bigger show, the former is better. But both are striving for unreality — the truth in the fantastic, the quivers of honesty that resonate inside one big hunk of narrative junk. We find familiar moments in the two series — a boy leans in for a kiss and is met with indifference; a group of friends band together to defeat a rival; parents hope for the best, oblivious to the consequences of their apathy. People die, but not the ones that count. These are the rules and bylaws of any series. There’s a reason Aaron Sorkin always points to Aristotle’s Poetics: The tools are centuries old. Despite all of their grandeur and marvelous creation, these shows are haunted by another kind of apparition, one that’s been around forever: convention.

There is another show that is plumbing the depths of the unreal this summer. This one is not conventional, by any means. And it is definitely not questing for the big audience. USA’s Mr. Robot is currently engaged in a second season that is bucking nearly every trend imaginable — no heroes, no victories, no straight lines, no satisfaction. Except, perhaps, for the one hiding in plain sight: the difficult second season. I am reminded of The Wire’s second season when I watch creator Sam Esmail’s show, the way he has introduced new characters I don’t care for and subverted the attentions of others. I might call this season of the show "unlikable" if it didn’t connote "don’t watch it."

Through six episodes, Esmail — who is directing every one of the show’s 12 episodes — has vanquished the momentum and thrill of Mr. Robot’s Season 1 finale. It is now a show inside the mind; someone’s, anyhow. Sometimes it’s Elliot, the lead hacker, who has essentially been strapped to a bed all season. Sometimes it’s Angela, Elliot’s pal and corporate worker bee ensconced in a hacker circle’s gambit. Sometimes it’s Dominique DiPierro, the FBI agent assigned to unlocking this season’s mystery. Sometimes it’s Esmail himself, toggling through his vision like a man clutching the remote control too tightly. Last year, it was the repeated revelation that we live in a world overrun by corporate influence. This year, it’s that we live in a world overrun by our own paranoia and mental illness. Win some, lose some.

Mr. Robot is a dark, unfriendly, and fascinating show. It has been a slog at times, amused with its own patience. Reality is a fungible concept here, and that sliding scale of comprehension is confounding at times; dull at others. But when it goes, it goes to amazing places. From the shootout set piece that ended Episode 5 through the ’80s sitcom homage and on through the crushing flashback that closed last week’s episode, we get to see a storyteller digging deep into his messenger bag every week. The performances are consistent and self-possessed — now we know Esmail can get the same commitment out of Alf that he gets from Rami Malek, an actor who is so locked and bound by his character’s pain that I basically hate watching the show when he’s on screen. I get the feeling that’s the point.

Esmail has been fearless this year, and I suspect the show will suffer for it — the visual cues to his favorite filmmakers have not gone unnoticed, but it’s unclear just how appreciated they will be. If Mr. Robot were just one arrow in Netflix’s quiver, it might be hailed as the rebel runt in the content giant’s arsenal. On USA, which is attempting to rebrand itself as a prestige network — another convention whose meaning is slowly fading — Mr. Robot is a flagship flying at half-mast. That may not matter for Esmail, but it might the next time USA sits across from an eccentric artist with a vision that extends beyond the "Blue Skies." Nevertheless, the back half of Mr. Robot promises a different kind of TV show — there’s no worry about threading a story needle to satisfy audiences. There is no needle.

To put it more bluntly: Mr. Robot tries things. Stranger Things and The Get Down do a lot of things, but they’re all things we’ve seen before. They’re singing the tracks. Mr. Robot is finding the break.