‘Mozart in the Jungle’: Come for Gael García Bernal, Stay for What Might Become Amazon’s Next Great Series

During Amazon Studios’ second pilot season, there were two clear winners. The first was Transparent, a poignant series that was brilliant and darkly funny from the very first preview episode. The second was Mozart in the Jungle, with its beautiful settings and talented ensemble cast. Its success was a little harder to predict than Transparent‘s: We knew where Transparent could go, but had no idea where Mozart was headed. Yet it was such a refreshingly unique show — and one that could help establish Amazon Studios’ brand as a “network” dedicated to more offbeat programming — that it left everyone wanting more. Tomorrow night, ten months after the pilot premiered, the full series will be made available for streaming. It may not live up to the high standard that Transparent set for Amazon, but it certainly does its best to compete.

Mozart in the Jungle has fancy names behind it (Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Alex Timbers, and Paul Weitz) and an ambitious concept: loosely adapted from the novel Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classic Musical, by Blair Tindall, the series goes behind the scenes of the pill-popping, competitive, cripplingly anxious, occasionally silly but often distressing orchestra world. But what those promising elements suggest, mostly, is that the show could be so much better, especially with all that it already has going for it. Mozart‘s locations are its strongest point (no one will be immune to falling in love with the scenery, the big orchestral halls, the urban playgrounds, and the artsy, bohemian — but tolerably artsy, bohemian — lofts), followed only by its rich ensemble of characters.

Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) is all regrets and frustration, a talented man who has aged out of his job, but who understands that “the heir to the throne must always kill the king.” The heir in question is Rodrigo, a “genius with a 28 waist,” played mesmerizingly by Gael García Bernal. He’s a character (and actor!) of “undeniable charm” — so much charm, in fact, that I can even forgive his terrible hair on this show. Bernal is the biggest reason to tune int o the series, because he takes this possibly-druggy eccentric prodigy, who finds music in everything from bridges to wind, and makes him feel like a fun, grounded, and irresistible character, rather than one that’s cloaked in artsy clichés.

At the center of it all, the character through whose eyes we view this strange world is Hailey (Lola Kirke, confused and charismatic). She’s the requisite naive newcomer clutching her oboe who auditions and wins a spot in Rodrigo’s choir, but then becomes his assistant. (And, I bet, eventually his love interest.)

mozart_jungle_205.JPGMozart in the Jungle is full of beautiful people in a beautiful world, but at times, toward the beginning, this can feel like the only thing the show is about: the superficiality and egotism of it all. Like all of Amazon Studios’ new series, Mozart is made to feel more like a movie than a television show, but it’s too scattered. Hailey’s relationship with a young dancer (played by Peter Vack of I Just Want My Pants Back, a show whose title I will take any opportunity to reference) has no urgency or depth to it. Even if that’s how it’s supposed to feel (millennials in New York and all that), there’s nothing there to care about. The same goes for Rodrigo’s run-in with a woman he left behind when he “abandoned Mexico” and “abandoned integrity.” The “out with the old, in with the new” rivalry between Thomas and Rodrigo is written almost hastily, as if the writers knew they had to put it in there but weren’t interested in the storyline itself.

The series does improve as it progresses, and finally begins to resemble a movie. As with every original series from Amazon and Netflix, Mozart in the Jungle is made especially for binge-viewing (and its release seems timed to capitalize on holiday-season downtime), with important stories that weave in and out through the episodes at a pace that will have you starting the next installment without even realizing it.

By the time Rodrigo’s goals start to become clear (he wants to do something valuable and important, but the ways in which he goes about it don’t fit in with the status quo of the orchestra he took over), and as we develop a deeper understanding of his personality (a key scene includes Rodrigo shutting down classism in a light, simplistic way), the show has truly hit its stride. The seventh episode (the last one sent out to critics) is by far the best of the series by, in terms of writing, directing, cinematography, development and themes. If it’s any indication of where the series is heading, Mozart in the Jungle‘s whole might well surpass its parts.