After the success of original series such as House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, and Transparent, streaming services now offer a legitimate alternative to television creatives who wish to avoid the restrictions of network and cable television. However, these services also present an obvious obstacle for writers: How do you structure an entire season of television that can be consumed at any pace? Binge-watching weekly television shows often highlights serious structural weaknesses or pacing problems inherent to the work itself, but they can also minimize character missteps or weak narrative arcs that might be amplified on a weekly basis. But Netflix or Amazon offer a different structural model and provide the option for a season to be watched at the viewers’ leisure. Thus, writers have a choice: Either ignore the structural burden and proceed like it’s simply a television show that’s premiering online, or assume the burden and structure the season accordingly.
All of this is to say that “Fifth Chair,” written by Paul Weitz and John Strauss, feels oddly unfinished, even though it’s structurally sound. It begins with Hailey getting her big break from Rodrigo as the fifth chair oboist during Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and ends with her choking during the first rehearsal. It makes sense to have Hailey laid low by a new environment and new pressures, but ending the episode at the moment when Hailey blows her first opportunity feels abrupt. It sort of ties in both Thomas’ growing resentment and Gloria’s skepticism towards Rodrigo’s new methods with their little commentary of Hailey’s performance, and a couple shots of Rodrigo’s disappointed face suggest he fears that he made a mistake choosing Hailey, but it still reads like Weitz and Strauss left out some crucial scenes that would have offered a better conclusion. It’s hard to say if this is just part and parcel with the new streaming structural model or if it’s simply intentional, but nevertheless, “Fifth Chair” doesn’t quite hold together as a single episode of television.
That isn’t to say “Fifth Chair” didn’t contain some wonderful little moments that suggest better things to come. The best scenes in the episode are the ones when Weitz’s camera simply watches or follows the characters, like when Hailey is obsessively practicing her piece to the disturbance of her roommate and her neighbor, or when Rodrigo meanders around New York City to play chess, smoke weed, and give large amounts of cash to street musicians. These scenes intend to illustrate artists in their natural habit, and they mostly succeed because they don’t blow up their actions to epic proportions. Hailey practices non-stop because she can’t fuck up the piece, and Rodrigo walks around because… well, it’s still unclear since Mozart In The Jungle insists on making him an enigma, but it’s still a nice scene because it at least hints at Rodrigo’s process rather than taking it for granted.
The brief orchestra scenes also showcase Weitz and Strauss’ understanding of ensemble dynamics. We meet Union Bob, who’s wary of Rodrigo and his announced changes to the orchestra, as well as whether the union-mandated bathroom breaks will be upheld; Dee Dee, the orchestra’s drug dealer who offers Hailey a beta-blocker “just to take the edge off”; and finally, Betty Cragdale, the first chair oboist, who believes that Hailey slept her way into the orchestra. These characters provide dimension and humanity to the monolithic orchestra that Hailey is so nervous about, but we don’t get to spend much time with them (roughly half the episode), so they don’t yet rise above archetypal status. Nevertheless, they point the way to an interesting and compelling ensemble in the future, which is important at this stage in the season.
We also get to see Rodrigo conduct for the first time and the results are more mixed. Though we spend plenty of time with Rodrigo in the beginning of “Fifth Chair” as he deals with the orchestra’s marketing team and his adoring fans, he’s still vaguely sketched as an obvious eccentric. He brings his parrot Igor, named after Igor Stravinsky, to rehearsal all for a metaphor about “stealing the souls of composers whose music [they] want to honor.” He exclaims in joy when Igor shits on his shoe because it’s a good sign. Yet, Weitz and Strauss also show that his laidback attitude hides an impatience with his players when he mutters to himself, “It’s still the beginning,” after someone messes up. While Gael García Bernal plays Rodrigo wonderfully, providing some of the best comedy in the show so far, Mozart In The Jungle keeps him hidden from us, probably because we’re supposed to see him alongside Hailey, but it can’t help but feel like the series is showcasing a supposed “genius” that has yet to actually prove it.
“Fifth Chair” also introduces a bunch of dangling character stories and doesn’t really follow through with them. Thomas’ concerns about his growing irrelevance in the orchestra could be poignant, but they come off like temper tantrums because the series relegates him to the sidelines. We also get one scene with Alex when Hailey goes to return his scarf, but so far he’s less of a character and more of an object of affection. Finally, Cynthia, whom the pilot establishes as sort of a mentor who sleeps with the establishment and works with the new blood, doesn’t get much to do here except encourage both Thomas and Hailey. It’s easy to read this as simple “second episode” problems when writers have to re-introduce conflicts and characters established in the pilot so viewers will know what’s going on, but because this is a streaming series, it just feels vaguely redundant and off-balance.
Overstuffed and uncertain, “Fifth Chair” highlights some of Mozart In The Jungle’s most pressing problems, most crucially its inability to service a large ensemble. Mozart wants to keep chugging the story along while also allowing for quiet moments when the cast and the writing can shine. It’s those quiet moments in “Fifth Chair” that give me hope for the rest of the season, but if the series keeps trying to do too much and too little every episode, it’s unclear how long the series can ride on its premise and the actors’ charm. Mozart In The Jungle needs to take some of its own advice and just breathe a little.
- Hannah Dunne reappears in this episode to push Hailey into Alex’s arms, which is fine because she’s also allowed to be funny.
- The “Rodriguites” were easily the worst part of “Fifth Chair,” mostly because I can’t believe that an orchestra conductor can produce rock-star levels of adoration from the public (if I am wrong, please let me know in the comments), but also that name is just awful.
- “Fifth Chair” also featured some really clunky dialogue, especially in the marketing scene in the beginning, but the highlight goes to Cynthia: “He’s an arrogant prick, but he respects you. You’re just too much of an arrogant prick to notice.”
- The best Rodrigo moment has to be his brief aside with Sharon when she eagerly cleans bird shit off his shoe: “Just chill out a little bit, please?”
- The Betty Cragdale character feels a little bit tired—the veteran who assumes the newcomer slept her way to the top—but I’m willing to give it a little bit to see if there’s more to her.
- One guy in the orchestra can’t score Thai sticks off of Dee Dee, but he can get some smooth space balls with Moroccan hash.
- “Hey Rain Man, I’m gonna blow a massive bong hit in your face and fuck up your precious lungs if you don’t stop playing this fucking Mahler.”