Many filmmakers who transition to television describe the switch as a simple one, usually using a phrase to the effect of, “It’s just a 10-hour movie.” They pretend — and I do mean pretend — that the only difference between what they made for the cinema and what they’re doing for television is the literal length of time they have with the characters.
This, however, is a lie; a lie often innocently told to toss aside a question with a much more complex answer, but still a lie. For the truth is, TV seasons aren’t just longer movies. They’re not novels, either (another popular, but only slightly more accurate simile). They’re TV shows, and they’re designed that way… that is, until “The Get Down.”
What first strikes you is the length.
Not only is the debut episode of “The Get Down” a 92-minute Baz Luhrmann-whirlwind of music and beauty, but the following episodes all clock in very close to 60 minutes, if not over. While that may not seem all that striking considering the accepted vernacular separating “half-hour” and “hour” programs, many of the latter entries come in far short of their label’s suggested length.
For example, “Stranger Things” episodes ranged from 55 minutes to just 41, resulting in an average run time slightly above 49 minutes. Similarly, the latest season of “House of Cards” averaged approximately 48 minutes an episode. “Bloodline” inches up to 51 minutes, while “Orange is the New Black” comes closest to an hour per episode at 59 minutes for Season 4, including a 77-minute finale. And that’s just Netflix dramas — pay cable and broadcast (obviously) can be even shorter.
“The Get Down,” meanwhile, clocks in at over 63 minutes an episode, in large part because of its 92-minute premiere. But it’s what this length does to your viewing experience that truly affects one’s appreciation of the series. As you keep watching, fascinated by the peak artistry of the immense production, you may find yourself wondering when you’ll get a break. After all, Luhrmann’s fervent presentation can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. A musical sequence — like a magical performance of standout track “Set Me Free” in Episode 5 — may make you want to stop and rewind, if not talk it over with your friend or seek out the yet-to-be-released soundtrack online.
But Luhrmann doesn’t give you that break. His series isn’t constructed like a string of small arcs cut together to form a greater one. Instead, it really is put together like a film: one big arc made up of stunning, stand-out moments in between. Some of those moments function as satisfactory end points, while other episodes conclude seemingly at random — almost as though they were dictated by time.
In contrast, let’s look at “House of Cards.” When David Fincher made his first small screen directorial debut for the landmark Netflix original, the premiere episode wasn’t feature-length. It didn’t wrap things up in an episode, like a short film with follow-up episodes functioning as sequels. It set up a series via classic episodic structure: the introduction of your protagonist via a defining moment (Frank Underwood killing a dog), a new situation is presented for him to confront (the President goes back on a promise to Frank), and a plan is set in motion by episode’s end (Frank even sits down at Freddie’s BBQ when he spots the article he helped Zoe Barnes publish).
“The Get Down” opens similarly — with an adult Ezekiel framing the story from the present day, introducing key characters and teasing key moments to come — and Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) even lays out a plan that drives much of the narrative forward: winning a dance-off at Laze Inferno to earn a dinner with a record executive. But what may feel like a traditional opening in structure — but not length — morphs into an introduction to something you’ve never seen before. The tale is as fresh as the way it’s told, as Luhrmann leans into the idea that viewers will watch at their own pace down to the second.
“Netflix and chill” enthusiasts may be accustomed to their viewing partner saying, “one more episode,” but they better adjust their thinking for “The Get Down.” You are the master of your own domain. Episodes are mere suggestions, as Luhrmann’s storytelling requires you decide when to take a break. Did you enjoy the wild dance scene in Episode 1? Take a moment to rewind and enjoy. Hit pause and talk over what Grandmaster Flash just taught his pupils. Restart Episode 5 and appreciate how two separate timeframes are combined into one scene, beautifully moving the story forward.
All this is not to say the strategy is without purpose. Not only are there structural through-lines (listen for the magnificent “Star Wars” nods that bookend Part 1), but “The Get Down” benefits from as a narrative, too. By holding you close to the world and keeping the pace, players and passion way up, Luhrmann draws his audience into a realm he’s been living in for nearly a decade. Breaks aren’t an option for the energetic filmmaker, so it makes sense his storytelling doesn’t naturally allow for them, as well as why he’d choose a platform that makes it incredibly easy for viewers to stop and start the series any time they please. It’s a divine pairing of artist and medium, and one that’s bound to frustrate as many people as it fascinates.
But the choice itself cannot be faulted. This calculated method — what others may label “messy” madness — illustrates how Luhrmann bought into the idea many others only pretend to endorse: “The Get Down” is a six-hour film, and it’s a masterpiece.