“The Get Down: Part 2” (Netflix)
Created by Stephen Adly Guirgis & Laz Buhrman
“Fortitude: Season 2” (Amazon)
Created by Simon Donald
You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m doing a dual review for two shows that couldn’t be more different. “The Get Down” (whose second part was just released on Netflix) is a Baz Luhrman teenage-musical-fantasy about the origins of rap music and the demise of disco, and how music was the best available avenue of escape (both economically or emotionally) from the ravages of the South Bronx in 1978. “Fortitude” (second season streaming as of last week on Amazon Prime) is a dark, foreboding, mystery-thriller-procedural about a series of violent acts on a tiny town under Norwegian sovereignty, located on the fringes of the civilized world in the Arctic circle. But as I watched them back-to-back, it became impossible not to compare the level of success in their growth and quality from the initial offerings. And, while one has forgotten everything that made it worthwhile in the first place, the other has grown…considerably.
If you read this blog with any regularity, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out which is which. I was utterly underwhelmed by the first part of “The Get Down”. I felt there was too much of a struggle to marry the realities of the South Bronx with the “Let’s Put On A Show!” sensibilities Luhrman was desperate to imbue it with. Add to that charicature-like performances, god-awful dialogue, and the repetition of certain musical themes, and all that was left was gloss, not much heart and no stake at all.
But, lucky for us, they seemed to have noticed that there was a really good shell for ADDING heart and stake…and realism…and MORE MUSIC! The five new episodes possess all that and more. The storylines are focused on what matters now…the perils and pitfalls of the record biz…what it means to be black outside of the confines of one’s insular community…and what made rap music become the force it did. In fact, these five new episodes are so much better, one could be excused for thinking of the first six episodes as one extended (and tedious) pilot.
The dialogue is still creaky as hell, although at least now it feels like a choice, rather than a mistake. And some of the story remains incredibly arch and predictable. But now it’s about the kids, so all is pretty much forgiven. Especially as they’ve all really grown in to their roles. The four friends who make up “The Get Down Brothers” are terrific. Justice Smith (Ezekiel) and Skylan Brooks (Ra Ra) should be singled out for not only elevating their characters (and lets face it, they were the only reasons to watch the first part), but imbuing their roles of protagonist with weight, which they had not done previously. Alas, Jaden Smith, whose character SHOULD have been a standout due to the nature of his storyline, is now relegated to the background. His burgeoning love easily dismissed as part of the typical (and incorrect) assumption that alternative lifestyles only exist in parallel with the drug-addled hype of the Studio 54 era. Herizon F. Guardiola (Mylene) is given the same room to grow as the others, but doesn’t seem to have the chops to handle all the shit that is placed in front of her. BUT, she acquits herself well enough to help us understand Ezekiel’s continued passion for her. And she can sing! Shamelk Moore (Shaolin Fantastic) is the only main character who gets screwed by the new direction. He was, literally, presented to us as a cartoon hero in the first part, and now that we find ourselves in a REAL South Bronx, he has to re-invent himself. His failure, however, is fortunately overshadowed by those he is surrounded by.
The adults fare less successfully with a couple exceptions, notably Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Cadillac). Just another cartoon in the first part, he is especially creepy, frightening and, ultimately, human now, rather than simply being the buffoon he had been relegated to. The entire Jimmy Smits/Giancarlo Esposito/Zabyna Guevera love triangle remains as absurd as it did then…and is, in no way, elevated by the situations the writers box them in to.
Finally, the excellent musical additions now have stake and purpose – and are entertaining! And, best of all, they wrote MORE. It’s such a relief not to hear “I’m Losing My Mind” every ten minutes. The hip-hop battle performances by the “GDB” are sensational and scenes remind me of my early adulthood forays in to the genre (being one of the lucky few to have seen Grandmaster Flash muscle through as a warmup act for the Clash in 1981 and to which my large collection of Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane records will attest). They seem of their time and place and are exciting, entertaining and really skillful. The disco/diva music doesn’t fare quite as well, especially when Mylene’s big song (which I believe was meant to be an homage to Sheena Easton’s disco coming out party “Sugar Walls”) sounds much more like a contemporary Britney/Ariana song-of-the-week and definitely NOT of its time. But, that doesn’t make it bad…just…odd.
Overall, if you found anything to like about the first part, you will be MUCH more invested by the end of the second.
But, “Fortitude”…oh boy, did they miss the mark. It’s as if they not only forgot what made the first season exceptional, but suddenly decided that the LEAST interesting aspects of the first are what viewers were clamoring for!
Why DID people watch in the first place? Well, most importantly, to see Stanley Tucci be his usual brilliant self in a completely different environment for him. And that environment was the secondary, yet just as fascinating, draw. A murder mystery that ties in ecology, great acting, gripping violence and terrific dialogue is ten hours well spent! And, while the ultimate outcome of the show may have seemed utterly implausible, I, for one, was prepared to accept it. So when I saw Amazon had picked up the show, I thought how easy it would be for the writers to pick up these surviving characters again and, somehow, place them in the center of another crazy mystery.
Not so fast! Firstly, the big-star attraction is now Dennis Quaid. Bit of a dropoff from Stanley Tucci, no? But, to be fair, the acting really isn’t the issue. The returning actors give it their all, especially the women. Alexandra Moen (Petra) has the most fun in her role, and as a result, she is impossible to take one’s eyes off of. Sofie Grabol (Hilde), Sienna Guillory (Natalie) and another actress (who if I mention will give away too much), are all passionate and convincing. But the men. They are universally pretty terrible. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (Eric), Ken Stott (Munk), Robert Sheehan (Vladek) and especially Quaid (among others who I can’t safely name), try like hell, but just come across as WAAAAAAAAY over-the-top.
Not that it’s all their fault. Beyond the first three or four episodes (which are pretty interesting and intriguing), the story dissolves in to the patently absurd, even if one can suspend one’s disbelief. Everything is WAY too important, and there is almost NONE of the charm, character, and wit of the first season…which is what made the town of Fortitude so interesting in the first place. All of that has been replaced with “SCARY” scenes – none of which are particularly scary. And the hyper-graphic nature of the violence is so unnecessary. There is one needless scene – both in visuals and in plot – that is about as uncomfortable a scene to watch as any I’ve seen in some time (don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it). Clearly someone took over the direction of the show and said, “hey, enough with the “Northern Exposure” sense of community! Let’s make it like American Horror Story!”. Which is truly a shame. The characters from that first world just can’t stand up to that kind of shift.
So, to sum it up: Get getting down with “The Get Down”, but stick to the fortuitous solace of “Fortitude’s” first season.