Television provides the unique opportunity for viewers to peak behind the curtains of a world they’d usually never get a chance to see. Sometimes this is a world of danger and intrigue: mob life in The Sopranos, the meth trade in Breaking Bad, the prison system in Orange Is The New Black. Other times, it’s a professional backdrop whose allure comes from its participants’ love of that world, with all the complexities and frustrations that come with it—advertising in Mad Men, politics in The West Wing, or arguably the most apropos example with regard to Mozart In The Jungle, theater in Slings And Arrows. If a series can create a compelling world that viewers want to return to episode after episode, it has achieved arguably the hardest part of creating a successful television show, and in the process, buys the series a lot of trust from viewers.
If there’s one thing the somewhat shaky Mozart In The Jungle pilot does well is that it clearly defines its world. It’s the professional world of classical musicians in New York City, but it’s much more than that. It’s a world of egos and ideological conflicts. It’s a world of young players trying to catch a break and old souls trying to keep up. It’s a world of hard-drinking and casual sex. It’s a world that presents a collected image to outsiders because it’s performing art that’s been around for centuries—but inside, it’s slowly dying for the same reason. In short, it’s a perfect environment to set a television show because it’s forced to grapple with the tough questions intrinsic to the setting: What does it mean to love something that’s slowly becoming irrelevant? How does it feel to age alongside a profession? Will all the time and effort put in to become great at something amount to any kind of success in the end?
Mozart In The Jungle tackles the lives of people who have given themselves to an artistic pursuit. These are not people who dream about being an artist one day, but actual artists who are dealing with that struggle every single day. There’s Hailey (Lola Kirke), a young oboist trying to stay afloat and make a name for herself; Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), the second cello in the New York Symphony who acts as the wise mentor to Hailey; Gloria (Bernadette Peters), the president of the symphony trying to adapt to the times; Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), the accomplished maestro on his way out the door; and Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), an eccentric yet brilliant conductor trying to save the soul of the orchestra through unconventional methods. None of these characters have yet to rise above their archetypal descriptions (it is still a pilot after all) but what’s important is that their motivations and actions clearly arise from their environment. They have chosen a creative life, and now they must live with that choice or take the long way back to the real world.
Since the pilot’s primary goal is to depict a day in that creative life, it operates at a leisurely, unhurried pace. Director Paul Weitz’s camera watches without intruding as Hailey, the audience surrogate and our window into this world, rushes from a job tutoring a kid more interested in her breasts than the oboe to a concert at the New York Symphony to another job in the orchestra at Styx: Oedipus Rocks, the jukebox musical from Hell. Weitz cuts between Hailey and the inner-workings of the Symphony, where Thomas objects to Rodrigo’s announced changes to the upcoming season and Rodrigo schools Thomas in his conducting, creating a rift between them that will almost certainly grow wider with every episode. Nothing much actually happens in the pilot beyond establishing conflicts, but watching Mozart In The Jungle for twists and turns in the plot is a fool’s errand. It wants to depict an atmosphere of high emotions, clashing personalities, and tense situations, and does so through a low-stakes, Altman-esque approach. Its goal is to place you in the mindsets of people like Hailey and Thomas, and it mostly succeeds.
However, the main weakness in the pilot also comes from its world-building strength. Mozart In The Jungle often feels forced when it’s trying to be relaxed and can hit the throttle on the “New York cool” a little too much. This comes through in the two weakest scenes in the pilot: Hailey’s drink with Cynthia and the party in Hailey’s apartment run by Hailey’s roommate, Lizzie (Hannah Dunne). Both scenes try to depict musicians hanging out and shooting the shit, but both also try too hard and come off a bit strained. Cynthia’s lame rundown of musicians’ sexual techniques is the peak of this artificiality, especially her trenchant observation that jazz pianists are better in bed than classical pianists because of “improvisation,” but the drinking game at the center of the episode also reads as stilted and affected. Hailey and a flautist go back and forth taking shots and playing sections of music, and though this is supposed to illustrate the “work hard, play hard” modus operandi of classical musicians, it comes across like the writers—Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore)—are trying to shove that fact down the viewers’ throats in the most labored way possible, even though I have no doubt the scene comes from reality.
But something happens at the very end that reinvigorates Mozart In The Jungle’s sense of purpose. Hailey and Rodrigo cross paths when Rodrigo holds auditions for new woodwind players at the Symphony. After Cynthia calls her about the audition, a hungover Hailey rushes to the concert space, leaving her tutee and his recital in the wind, but still misses it by just a hair. Heartbroken and disappointed in herself, she plans to leave, but at the last moment, decides to sit on that stage and play a piece, even if it’s for an empty concert hall. She plays beautifully and Rodrigo, who had been previously unimpressed with all of the previous musicians that auditioned, is stunned by her performance, and can finally hear the music rattling around in his head.
It’s a clichéd scene that doesn’t really stop being a cliché despite Kirke and Bernal’s respective performances, but the rest of the episode establishes it well by illustrating the gap between “the job” and “the art.” Hailey spends her time rushing in between gigs, listening to more successful musicians play, and copiously drinking, and wonders at the end of the day whether there’s time for art. When Alex (Peter Vack), the cute ballet dancer/bartender that Hailey crushes on, asks her if she thinks that will go away when she’s successful, but all she says is that she hopes it gets easier. It’s telling that Hailey doesn’t doubt that she’ll be successful, but just wonders if she’ll lose her passion in the process. But that last scene, with the swelling music and the alternating close-ups between Hailey and Rodrigo, illustrates what Mozart In The Jungle spends its entire pilot trying to illustrate: Artistic passion runs deeper than blood, and no amount of setbacks and frustrations can change that.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Mozart in the Jungle! Reviews will go up at 7 p.m. every night from now until January 3rd with breaks for Christmas and New Years Day. My name is Vikram and I’ll be your conductor for the next week and a half.
- Let’s talk about Rodrigo for a second. As of now, Mozart in the Jungle leans pretty heavily on the eccentricities and the unusual fashion sense to convey that he’s a different breed of conductor, which I anticipate will wear out its welcome pretty soon. Hopefully the series will communicate his genius better than simply talking about it.
- The one major “twist” in the episode is that Cynthia is sleeping with Thomas, and both are at least slightly concerned that Rodrigo will push them out of the way in favor of a younger crew. Let’s see how that develops.
- How does everyone feel about the series’ liberal use of sex scenes? Gratuitous or just right?
- It’s hard to make anything of Lizzie in her brief appearance in this episode, but Hannah Dunne is a wonderful actress, and I hope she’ll have more to do than play the role of the “party girl”.
- I did like the Ganganome though.