Written by Internet, TV

Mozart in the Jungle

A mini-review of this new Amazon series, because I think it deserves it!

First things first: there’s no doubt that this is a terrible title for a TV series. It’s supposed to shout something like “classical music in New York City” but I’m really not sure it does. I complain when titles are boring, but this one is a bit lousy. It comes from the book of the same name, a 2005 memoir from Blair Tindall who spent many years in the New York classical music scene performing with various orchestras.

The book seems to have simply been a jumping off point for the series which is set around the fictional New York Symphony, who is just saying goodbye to its old “maestro” (Malcolm McDowall) and welcoming its new South American genius, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). There’s a feeling that new is replacing old on a slightly faster timetable than old would like.

We largely follow things from the perspective of Hailey (Lola Kirke), a young oboist who is striving to make a career for herself. She lives with her friend Lizzie (Hannah Dunne) in one of those preposterously large apartments that everyone seems to get in US TV shows even when they’re living hand to mouth (cf. Girls).

Amazon pitches the show as a comedy, but comedy drama would be a better way of describing it, with the show neatly divided into ten 30 minute episodes. At first it seems as though Hailey is going to dramatically get her dream job with the symphony until some real world concerns come into play. This is a heavily unionised world, where even a new conductor doesn’t get to hire and fire at will. We get to know various members of the orchestra over time, although the scale of the personnel limits things somewhat.

Notably we get to know Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who’s had a relationship with the outgoing maestro, and is very welcoming towards Hailey as she struggles to make her mark. And we also meet Gloria (Bernadette Peters) the long-suffering manager of the orchestra, constantly juggling the financial realities of what they have to do with the needs of the musicians.

I’ve got to tell you that in spite of that awful name, I really enjoyed Mozart in the Jungle and binged on the whole thing in a couple of sittings – thirty minute episodes are very more-ish.

I did read an hilariously testy review of the series elsewhere which bemoaned some of the things that would “never really happen.” But this is something that anyone who’s ever worked in any profession that’s featured in television or film has known for many years. Do we really think any cop show bears more than the faintest reflection on reality? Or a medical show? Or a legal show? I know that scenes set in Frasier’s radio station were some of the least convincing portrayals of a radio station ever committed to celluloid. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love the show and find it funny.

They obviously did make a couple of changes after the pilot episode though – reining in on classical musicians playing shot games with flutes and oboes and so on. And yes, it doesn’t make sense that a musician could do double duty performing in a concert hall and then dashing across town to play in the pit of a Broadway musical (shows start around the same time). But I’m pretty sure that musicians do supplement their income performing in other places. Whether the players in the premier orchestra would is a separate question, but these people have to make a living, and I’m pretty sure that in the UK your average violinist isn’t on six figures even allowing for currency conversions.

I found it interesting to see the hoops you have to go through to constantly bring in money – having lunches with elderly well-off ladies who bid to support your work.

Rodrigo, incidentally, is surely supposed to be Gustavo Dudamel, now at the LA Philharmonic. I suspect though, that while he may well do some things differently, he isn’t quite the madcap diva that Rodrigo seems to be, with his even crazier wife.

But this is a comedy drama, and so we shouldn’t take it all too seriously. It comes from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman (who’s Bored to Death was wonderful), and Alex Timbers. Schwartzman shows up in a couple of episodes as the presenter of a classical music podcast with ideas perhaps a little above his station. And John Hodgman continues to refine his eccentric billionaire act (as seen on The Daily Show), playing an eccentric millionaire in a couple of episodes here.

There’s a light frothy air to the whole thing. The music is well handled, and you tend to be left wanting to hear more. The closing credits point out that much of the music is available on Amazon Music, although I didn’t find any direct links on their website, so they may be missing a trick. Give viewers a list of the pieces heard and direct links through to buy them! (Given that the producers are working with a real orchestra, I’d almost be tempted to fully film some of the pieces and offer them as streaming “extras” if they could find a way to do it.)

[One final aside. The pilot episode was obviously produced many months before the rest of the series. Invariably some things change between pilots of full series. Notably, producers decide to change their credits – either in style, or creating themes or stings. What I never understand with US series is why they don’t later go back and re-edit the credit sequences of the pilot to match the rest of the series. Yes, the pilot has long been available on Amazon, so that doesn’t make it as relevant. But this commonly happens with network fare, where beyond executives, nobody has really seen the pilot before it hits the screens, and then the first two episodes look different.]