The strongest asset at Mozart In The Jungle’s disposal is its setting, a network of performance halls, rehearsal spaces, artists’ lofts, recording studios, dressing rooms, and administrative offices that comprise a viciously competitive, highly incestuous classical musical scene in New York City. It’s a good place for making friends, as oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke, sister of Girls’ Jemima Kirke) discovers one fateful night in the orchestra pit for the histrionic (and fictional) jukebox musical Styx: Oedipus Rocks. It’s also a place where you can’t avoid your enemies—nor can you avoid making them, as Hailey learns after sitting in with the symphony for an afternoon. Mozart In The Jungle’s own babe in the woods, Hailey is our entry point into this show, but she’s by no means its only protagonist, or even its most engaging figure.
Befitting its subject matter, Mozart In The Jungle depicts a symphony of characters and voices, its binge-ready structure illuminating through-lines for even the most minor players in the ensemble. In this sense, the latest series from Amazon Studios is a bit like an American counterpart to the Canadian dramedy Slings And Arrows, in which classical composers sub in for Shakespeare and the sage Stephen Ouimette figure isn’t dead. Though he might as well be, given the way Malcolm McDowell’s seasoned Mozart In The Jungle conductor is rushed out of the spotlight in favor of Rodrigo D’Souza, the rock-star maestro portrayed by Gael García Bernal. Mozart is an ensemble show, but the eccentricities of his character and the intensity of his performance draw plenty of attention to Bernal, a firebrand seeking to shake up a cultural institution sinking into irrelevancy.
In his personal crusade to save the soul of classical music, Rodrigo seeks to take Mahler, Mozart, and company out of the concert hall and into the streets, an infectious energy that’s, unfortunately, also the source of the show’s most cloying material. But Bernal plays such an enjoyable kook that Mozart In The Jungle effortlessly vaults over such concerns; it helps that his Rodrigo holds on to a shred of the passion and earthiness expressed by Hailey—or by Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a cellist adjusting to her newfound status as an elder stateswoman among her peers. Mozart In The Jungle is one part performing-arts drama, another part workplace comedy, and the simplest of its charms are wrapped up in the day-to-day details of the musicians’ lives: Rushing between gigs in separate parts of Manhattan, making ends meet by giving private lessons, keeping close tabs on the crazy new conductor so he doesn’t blow through union-mandated bathroom breaks. It’s a life currently unseen anywhere else on TV, and Mozart In The Jungle does a commendable job of pulling back curtains without losing sight of its characters’ humanity.
If it could take notes from within, the series would do well to follow Rodrigo’s example and demand more blood, guts, and emotion from itself. Executive produced in part by Jason Schwartzman, Mozart In The Jungle carries some of the same cool, New York aloofness as Schwartzman’s previous TV project, Bored To Death. But Mozart In The Jungle isn’t a deadpan comedy, so that can translate as lifelessness, which is in turn overcompensated for with thin quirks, like the hippie percussionist who keeps the symphony’s musicians and employees properly self-medicated. The show is funny, but never gut-bustingly so; it’s most often a triumph of atmosphere, a hangout show with a tremendous (and too infrequently engaged) sense of tension. When Hailey drills the same passage over and over and over in the second episode, Mozart In The Jungle expertly drafts off of an extreme performance anxiety that’s akin to a small-screen, serialized Whiplash.
But the show plays its binge-watching cliffhangers well, and the Coppola-directed seventh half-hour, “You Go To My Head,” is a late-arriving contender for one of the year’s best episodes. It’s there that Mozart In The Jungle practices what its most captivating character preaches, capturing a bacchanalian fundraiser in languid long takes. After all the sharp intakes of breath that proceed it, the episode is an enchanting bit of exhalation, placing the dirty business of running a symphony alongside demonstrations of why anyone would bother with playing music professionally in the first place. (It’s also the first installment in which Bernadette Peters, usually riding the pragmatic/passionate divide so expertly navigated by Mark McKinney in Slings And Arrows, is allowed to have any goddamn fun with Mozart In The Jungle.) It’s a welcome signal from Mozart In The Jungle’s first season: Not every corridor of the show is required to double as a trench. Even the composer referenced in the show’s title knew when to put the symphonies aside and write some party music.