Brow Beat

Add Some High Culture to Your Binge Watching With Mozart in the Jungle

Gael García Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle.

Gael García Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle.

Still courtesy Amazon

A symphony orchestra (like most symphony orchestras) is in trouble, both in terms of finances and cultural relevance. New blood—and new concert attendees—are desperately needed, and so a sexy, charismatic young Latino conductor with luscious curls and an eccentric management style is brought in to replace the wizened outgoing maestro. The new guy has a lot of clashes with the orchestra union, the board of directors, and his crazy ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, a young female oboist eking out a living in Brooklyn has dreams of playing in the big leagues, and, through a series of unlikely events, actually achieves them—sort of.

This, a basic synopsis of Amazon’s wonderful new series Mozart in the Jungle, is a tough sell, I know—especially for those who may not care much for classical music, much less the internecine negotiations of musicians’ unions. But trust me when I tell you this: Mozart deserves a fair hearing. The show’s first season became available all at once on Amazon back in late December (not the best time to debut a new show, alas), and once I finally screened the pilot, I eagerly devoured the rest in short order. Now, as someone with a music degree I may be predisposed to enjoy the subject matter; but biases aside, I think it’s accurate to say Mozart is one of the funniest, most charming comedies going. You could do far worse than spend a portion of a winter weekend submitting to its serenade.

On one level, the show is a realistic portrait of the contemporary world of performing arts in New York punctuated with occasional modulations into surrealism. The oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke) lives in an accurate representation of outer-borough boho squalor, complete with precarious income sources, invasive roommates, and messy, hookup-generating house parties. Likewise, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) enjoys the perks (or impositions, as his Romantic soul might see them) of a hot-shot conductor’s life, including fancy donor parties in the Hamptons and an obscene penthouse apartment lent to him by a board member. It’s this well-grounded backdrop that allows Mozart to indulge in its more absurdist moments, such as the melodramatic plotline involving Rodrigo’s unstable, Maria Elena–like performance artist ex-girlfriend or his imagined conversations about a score with Mozart himself at the library.

But what’s most compelling about the show for me is its commitment to specificity when it comes to classical music and the social world surrounding it. According to reports, show creators Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers worked hard to get those details right, inviting experts like the New Yorker’s classical critic Alex Ross to consult on the scripts. A good portion of that specificity is manifested in the show’s humor, which, in laying out the sexual styles of different types of musicians (percussionists pound, etc.) to recall one example, took me back to my days on the band bus. But cheap jokes aside, the characterization is so well-observed as to be eerie: The druggie timpanist, the up-tight woodwind teacher, Bernadette Peters’ cursing-through-her-smile symphony president, even Schwartzman’s cameo as the pedantic host of a podcast about classical music—all of these felt like music people I’ve known over the years. To say that I never would have imagined seeing them rendered so well and so entertainingly on screen is an understatement.

To be sure, it’s not quite fair to discuss Mozart and Amazon’s other excellent 2014 creation, Transparent, in the same breath, as the shows have very different goals. But it is worth noting that both of these succeeded at presenting subject matter that I can’t quite imagine seeing on “normal” television, and presenting it exceedingly well. I sincerely hope that audiences find their way to these shows, if for no other reason than I cannot wait for Rodrigo and his orchestra to have a chance at a second movement in 2015.