Review: Mozart in the Jungle

Hospitals, court rooms, police stations, high schools, television studios, suburban McMansions, unrealistically large urban lofts, nondescript offices: all locations familiar to us as the mainstays of episodic television. Even the most ambitious and novel new programs struggle to breathe new life into these stale locales. A fresh location works wonders, and Mozart in the Jungle thrives most when it focuses on the peculiar workings of the insular world of elite symphonic musicians. When it pushes the boundaries of that world too far, the show begins to drift off-key.

The newest original series from Amazon Studios, Mozart in the Jungle follows the exploits, both fantastical and mundane, of musicians in the New York Symphony Orchestra as they adjust to their bombastic, innovative new conductor, Rodrigo (a delightfully offbeat Gael García Bernal). Our audience surrogate is young oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke, another highlight), who at twenty-six is trying to eke out a living while fighting to break into the upper ranks of classical musicians before her window of opportunity closes. The series is based loosely off Blair Tindall’s inside look at the world of freelance classical music, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music. Producers include Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman (who also has a pitch-perfect bit part as an effete classical music podcaster), whose labors in the dreamlike world of Wes Anderson movies clearly inform their work here. While more grounded than Anderson’s films, the series has a similar sense of reverence for things larger than life.

Rodrigo, Hailey, and their fellow musicians occupy a world of heightened reality, where Rodrigo’s passionate imaginings bleed over into the real world. While the facts of what actually transpired occasionally come into question, emotional truth is always a given. This is a show best watched in binge format, allowing you to focus on longer, progressive character arcs. Episodic motivations fluctuate so nuanced characters can sometimes read as flat despite the prodigious talents of their actors. Particularly affected by this are the stories of Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), the conductor emeritus who rages against Rodrigo’s radical changes, and Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a veteran cellist with a wild streak who becomes Hailey’s supporter. Viewed as a whole across the entire series, these two people have powerful thematic resonance, with Thomas’ struggle to accept that his peak years are behind him and Cynthia’s battle to stay on the top of her game as she realizes how aimless her future is. But, on a individual episode basis, their multi-faceted personalities tend to dull.

The world of classical music is unsurprisingly rich, never more so than when the show points out the inherent contradictions of being a classical musician. These men and women produce the highest of high culture, deemed so inaccessible to the general public that its aficionados constantly interrogate each other over precisely how dead an art form it is. Yet they’re hired hands, obligated to practice endless hours on their own time in order to cobble together enough gigs to provide a living that will never be commensurate with that of their patrons, and prohibited from socializing with those who pay for their art unless they’re pressing flesh for fundraising purposes. Classical musicians have the appearance of a social status that belies a much lower economic one, and Mozart in the Jungle highlights the heartbreaking sacrifices it takes to stay at the top.

Throughout most of the ten-episode first season, the show admirably chooses not to go for the predictable answer to the character’s conundrums. When a legendary oboe player criticizes Hailey’s lack of talent and uncharitably accuses her of sleeping with Rodrigo in order to get her big break, she’s wrong about the means but not about Hailey’s inadequate preparation. Rodrigo may look to be a cardboard cutout of an erratic creative genius, but instead of being irascible and closed-off, he’s a kind and joyful leader. (Although, the season finale does veer dangerously close to ruining that edge with schmaltz.)

Amazon hasn’t yet announced plans for a second season, although showrunner John J. Strauss seems optimisticMozart in the Jungle sparkles with enough originality that, buoyed by the talents of Bernal and Kirke, it seems likely to become even more assured in another go-around, and the characters populating the world are compelling enough to keep me around for the ride.

All ten half-hour episodes are currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.