One of the benefits of living in this day and age of myriad scripted entertainment, or “Peak TV” if you want to be trendy, is that it allows for more niche ideas to gain a foothold in the television landscape. Writers don’t necessarily have to write a show that has a broad appeal; they can limit their scope according to the specificity of their premise without worrying about adopting a narrow approach. Streaming platforms especially have gained success by placing their faith behind shows that would have never made it onto television for a variety of practical and biased reasons, like Orange Is The New Black, Transparent, and Sense8. It’s this type of media environment that enables the existence of Amazon’s Mozart In The Jungle, a series that explores the behind-the-scenes action at the New York symphony orchestra, treating the classical music world like its own version of Hollywood.
That isn’t meant as a knock against the show at all. On the contrary, its singular, specific focus on an environment heretofore unexplored on television is a feature not a bug; it makes it unique in an overcrowded landscape. Though Mozart In The Jungle’s first season occasionally suffered from clumsy introductions into the inner-workings of a major symphony, often relying on patchy archetypes to help ease the audience into unfamiliar terrain, the second season’s confidence in its own world is easily its best quality. Instead of going to great lengths to illustrate the symphony is just another institution containing many players with competing agendas and personal problems, it just treats it as such, expecting viewers to keep up. From the very first minutes of the new season, Mozart In The Jungle displays an invigorated energy that comes from knowing exactly what kind of show it wants to be.
In fact, the second season of Mozart In The Jungle fixes many of the surface-level problems that plagued its debut year. While the series retains its focus on its twin protagonists—maestro Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal), and audience surrogate and 2nd chair oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke)—it adopts a much more comfortable, panoramic view of the ensemble, allowing them to drift in and out of a more expansive narrative. Moreover, the series makes Hailey a much more active character as she takes charge of her new role in the ensemble and her confused relationship with Rodrigo, which gives Kirke a chance to act in a different register other than timid or diffident. It also emphasizes some of the first season’s best minor characters like Pavel (Sandro Isaack), the orchestra’s maintenance worker that begins a secret relationship with the orchestra’s president Gloria (Bernadette Peters), and quickly disposes of other more boring ones, like Hailey’s love interest Alex (Peter Vack).
The series also exhibits a much more comfortable narrative style, squaring away its meandering storytelling with just enough forward momentum to keep it completely out of neutral. At its best, Mozart In The Jungle ambles in and out of its ensembles’ lives, relishing in the small gestures that other shows would deride as “mundane.” While it doesn’t have the Altman-esque finesse of a show like Treme, its respect for capital-A Art and those who create it is palpable, which provides scenes like Rodrigo’s impromptu jam session with a drum circle and Gloria’s first singing performance in years with a gentle humanity. While the series’ first season often stumbled when it had to re-introduce the macro plot after lingering in detours, this season is much better at threading the various season-long stories, like the symphony’s impending strike, the secret affair between Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) and the new players’ union lawyer (Gretchen Mol), as well as the sexual tension between Hailey and Rodrigo.
Despite its macro-level confidence, Mozart In The Jungle’s main flaw is its aversion to any kind of micro-level structure. Though it’s now become the norm for series’ released on streaming platforms to structure seasons as if they will be binge-watched, this strategy doesn’t really work well for Mozart In The Jungle. The series serves so many different characters and navigates a whole host of stories with such a breezy style that it would behoove the writers to tighten each episode. Instead, they just begin and end abruptly without rhyme or reason, inevitably rendering some episodes completely weightless and others filled with dramatic heft. The reason why shows like Treme and Slings And Arrows can operate in a low register, vaunt underappreciated art, and still be compelling is that they have a very tight structures from which their spirited digressions arise. But with Mozart In The Jungle, it’s all digressions without much structure to hold it together, which inevitably means many events bleed together because they don’t have singular definition. It’s actually great that the series likes to luxuriate in its characters without feeling a need to get back to the narrative, a lesson that many shows could learn from. But when the show is deprived of any sort of guiding principle, it can be deadly on a minute-by-minute basis.
Nevertheless, Mozart In The Jungle still manages to impress because of its performances and general vibe. It’s easy to get lost in the series while it wanders throughout New York or checks in on characters like ex-conductor and composer Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) or Lizzie (Hannah Dunne) and her relationship with classical music podcast host Bradford Sharpe (Jason Schwartzman). It also cannot be overstated how much Bernal and Kirke carry the show; the former’s live-wire energy and the latter’s relaxed, but firm performance captivate all on their own. (The series also features some great direction courtesy of Roman Coppola, who also helmed “You Go To My Head,” the series’ best episode to date: When the symphony takes a trip to Mexico City, as he shoots the location with a engaged, curious eye, highlighting its beauty at every step.) Mozart In The Jungle may always just be out of reach of the “Great TV” pantheon, but it’s always watchable being entirely itself. How many shows can you say that about?