‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Picks Up the Tempo in Season 2

The biggest problem with Mozart in the Jungle was always its pedigree. This doesn’t mean Amazon’s second foray into comedy was ever actually bad; in fact, its first season improved steadily as it went along, though as with most streaming shows it was sometimes difficult to tell if the improvement was genuine or simply a matter of acclimating to the series. I’m referring instead to the fact that Mozart lost the advantage of surprise afforded to something like Transparent, whose creator Jill Soloway had worked on prestigious series but never headed one of her own, only to gain the disadvantage of major expectations.

Those expectations were inevitable with a cast headed up by Gael Garcia Bernal, as a Dudamel-esque wunderkind conductor brought in to spice up a moribund New York Philharmonic Symphony, and supported by heavyweights like Malcolm McDowell, as the older maestro he replaces, and Bernadette Peters, as the symphony head forced to clean up Bernal’s messes. Add to that a raft of co-creators that includes two Coppola scions — Roman, who writes and directs, and Jason Schwartzman, who writes, directs, and acts — and Paul Weitz, and you’ve got a show that’s inevitably considered a disappointment when it doesn’t sweep the year-end top ten lists.

As evidenced by its decision to drop season two on New Year’s Eve Eve, though, Amazon’s not really angling for another critical knockout. (Not that the show is without its partisans; both the show itself and Bernal received Golden Globe nominations this year.) Mozart simply remains the pleasant binge it was right out the gate, with a few notable upgrades, starting immediately: last season’s janky, computer-generated, unintentionally vaporwave opening titles have been swapped out in favor of sprightly, Kandinsky-esque animations.

With its built-in levity, Mozart has always done a better job making use of its setting, and all the inflated egos, petty dramas, and occasional moments of transcendence that come with it, than more self-serious “life in the high arts!” dramas like Flesh and BoneOver the course of its first season, Weitz, Coppola, and their collaborators gradually learned how to toe the line between Bernal’s Rodrigo de Souza as manic pixie dream maestro — he loves yerba mate, late-night bike rides, and charming the pants off the donors by showing up hours late and hosting impromptu wine glass concerts — and earnestly ambitious artist; ditto for Lola Kirke’s Hailey Rutledge, who navigated the poles between hapless ingenue and Rodrigo’s straight woman increasingly well.

Season two situates these newly settled characters into a story that’s also newly streamlined. True to its genre, last season followed the buildup from Rodrigo’s arrival at the NYS to his, and the orchestra season’s, opening night; now both the symphony and Mozart itself have settled into more of a groove. This allows for a greater emphasis on episodic misadventures, the lack of which has long been a weakness of streaming comedies and dramas alike. The fourth installment, a high point, follows the characters through a single night (and fun cameos from real-life classical musicians like Josh Bell and Lang Lang), while the fifth returns to Rodrigo’s childhood home of Mexico City. Longer arcs, too, are accelerated when they need to be: the union contract negotiations that never quite went anywhere last season are kickstarted by the arrival of a new lawyer. The chemistry between Rodrigo and Hailey, however, remains insistently on a low simmer, even after the finale’s inevitable kiss.

Other, less successful storylines are largely dropped, particularly those with less of a connection to the orchestra. Hailey remains the protagonist, but her home life, in the form of her rocky relationship with dancer Alex and her bohemian rich-girl roommate Lizzy, gradually drifts out of focus. Now that she’s second oboist, Hailey’s more integrated with the symphony as a whole, and the show’s subsequent shift into workplace ensemble comedy mode is all the better for it.

None of this necessarily makes Mozart a must-watch — the stakes remain low, and the observations on the artist’s life mostly surface-level — just a smoother one. For every Bojack Horseman or Difficult People, a  budding streaming network needs a Grace and Frankie or a Casual: pleasant counter-programming that builds out the roster without necessarily adding cachet. A noticeably improved Mozart gets the job done handily, with some high culture bona fides to boot.

Mozart in the Jungle season two is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.