Premiering at a time where most TV series are — for good reason — on hiatus for the holidays, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle isn’t well-positioned to be included on many year-end lists, most of which are written up before it becomes available. But it deserves recognition not only because it’s a particularly unique kind of comedy, but it’s also one that manages to be genuinely smart and warm. The series follows a fictional New York orchestra via the experiences of a young oboist, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), who struggles to find her place as a musician and in the organization at large. There are plenty of politics to playing in an orchestra, along with the same kind of corporate structure that bears down on everywhere, whether you work in a cubicle or are a concert violinist. In this way and many others, Mozart never seeks to be niche, even though its music-focused story can seem that way at first. It has always been, and continues to be, an invitation to remove preconceptions.
That theme runs throughout the show’s now three seasons, first with the advent of a strange, rogue new maestro in Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), who replaced the more traditional Thomas (Malcolm McDowell). The orchestra balks at the choice and Rodrigo fires back, each side eventually coming to a better understanding by working together in a way that is naturally fraught with tension. This plays out through a lockout that takes up much of the second and third seasons, where the players and management fight for months over salary disputes. Yet all the while the music remains paramount, and the musicians we have come to know so well — including Saffron Burrows’ sensual cellist Cynthia, Mark Blum’s “Bob the Union,” the unflappable Warren Boyd (Joel Bernstein), and aging hippie percussionist Dee Dee (John Miller) — each give us different insights into the orchestral world.
One of Mozart in the Jungle’s recurring devices is to have the orchestra play outside of the concert hall — they play on the street, in a small South American village, in a prison yard, and anywhere else Rodrigo can convince them to go. The message is to make music accessible, especially classical music which is so often dismissed in our modern times as stuffy and stodgy. The series itself is also an invitation, allowing for extended concert scenes while also breaking that up with an exploration of certain instruments and an introduction to composers (some of whom Rodrigo speaks to regularly — we see them as physically manifestations, and they are often deriding him in addition to offering advice). But even when it’s pointedly educational, the show never loses its sense of warmth and whimsy. No matter what your prior knowledge of this music and its players and creators, the tour is welcomed.
What ultimately makes Mozart in the Jungle such a uniquely enjoyable binge watch (each season runs for a quick 10 episodes that are less than a half-hour each) is its French New Wave style, and how it’s never afraid to follow a character just for the vignette, allowing each experience to feel like we’re being let in on a secret delight. Season 2’s “Touché, Maestro, Touché” was a visually stunning drug-induced trip, while Season 3 experiments with its seventh episode, “Not Yet Titled,” which is a short-form documentary by the character Bradford Sharp (Jason Schwartzman).
It’s easy to read this and think Mozart in the Jungle is pretentious, and maybe it is a little bit. But it never seeks to be exclusionary — it wants you to be pretentious with it, to encourage you to finding your own engagement with the music, and to enjoy its happy-go-lucky plots as it traipses along (almost always in the summer, which is a welcomed break from winter doldrums). Mozart isn’t always happy (like when Cynthia’s old injury flares up, or Warren’s wife kicks him out because he doesn’t have a job during the lockout), but it often plays some of its emotional moments so big that you can’t help but laugh. Still, one does feel genuine emotion for its cast of characters, and an investment in knowing what comes next for them.
Season 3 starts with Hailey and Rodrigo accidentally meeting up in Italy, where Rodrigo has fled the bureaucracy of the orchestra. His desire is to conduct a comeback concern for a former opera star, Alessandra (Monica Bellucci), who is a tempestuous dream and nightmare all in one. But Mozart continues to check back in with the New York players until we return to them in earnest, and like Hailey and Rodrigo’s road trip in Season 2, these episodes work as a kind of extended reverie — though one that is not without its trouble and embarrassment, and yet, that makes it all the more charming.
Speaking of charm, Kirke and Bernal continue to anchor the series with plucky charisma and passionate creativity, and in Season 3 Hailey starts to consider a path towards conducting. In doing so, she is forced to confront her own insecurities and take on more of a leadership role instead of that of a forever assistant. She seeks out the aid of the former maestro, Thomas, who himself has found a second life in a collaboration with composing for electronic music. The players of Mozart in the Jungle change, but they never leave us. Thank goodness.
Rating: ★★★★ – Delightful
Mozart in the Jungle Season 3 debuts on Amazon Prime in full on Friday, December 9th.