I was at a Golden Globes viewing party when Mozart in the Jungle won in two major television categories–Best Television Series – Comedy and Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Its win was perplexing to many, mainly because no one has even heard of the show, created by Roman Coppola (a Coppola), Jason Schwartzman (another Coppola), and Alex Timbers (a non-Coppola).
But I’ve heard of it. In fact, I actually watched the pilot episode two years ago when Amazon first posted it as a Prime offering, and didn’t even have the option to watch the second episode because Amazon still hadn’t picked it up for a full season at the time. I’m hesitant to say I liked it before it was cool, but I definitely watched it before it was cool.
After Mozart in the Jungle’s unexpected wins at the Globes, Medha was responsible for watching and reviewing the first season, and I was responsible for watching and reviewing the second season. Medha blew through the two seasons because she was able to watch the show on her train rides home and even wrote about it months ago, while I binged the first season and indefinitely stopped watching season two, until today. So, I’m sorry, I’m a terrible blogger who can’t make commitments.
The first season was charming enough, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal’s irresistible performance as the wunderkind maestro of the New York Philharmonic, Rodrigo de Souza. Bernal’s performance in season one is wonderful in the sense that he adds so much depth to a character that could have been a textbook brat on paper. Bernal plays the character with such vitality and wit that he makes some of the amateur classical music references sound like jokes a world-class conductor could conceivably crack. In addition, season one allowed its audience to marvel in the fact that Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell are regulars on a streaming television series because, well, it’s 2015.
Yet, season two loses some of the whimsical charm from season one. Our oboist-protagonist, Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), is no longer the lost, semi-relatable gal (as relatable as a twentysomething female protagonist in a NYC-set comedy series could potentially be to a normal human being who binge-watches television shows) struggling to make it in the big city as the conductor’s personal assistant, but is now a member of the New York Philharmonic. She sleeps with a famous cellist, charms a wealthy banker, and makes out with her conductor. Gone is the girl who was so easily charmed by a con man and was dating a freelance dancer–Hailey Rutledge is now a cool city girl who can have pretty much anyone and anything she wants.
Protagonists become boring when things fall into place for them. As for the other characters, however, things are not falling into place quite yet. The rest of the orchestra is making demands for their livelihood–to be better compensated, to have better health insurance, and so on. While the show presents a real problem–musicians not being paid enough to be the cornerstone of a very monied institution–the show sort of glosses over the serious issues with libido-driven digressions. Case in point: cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows) falls for the orchestra’s hired lawyer (Gretchen Mol), creating an awkward love triangle between the two women and flutist Bob (Mark Blum).
Yet, Bernal remains the heart of the show. Without him, the show is nothing. While the Roman Coppola’s beautifully directed episode, “How to Make God Laugh” set in Mexico City contains the breezy, playful charm of season one, or more specifically, the “You Go to My Head” episode (also directed by Coppola), it’s Bernal’s performance that shines above all else. “You Go to My Head” is one of the first episodes in the series where the show probes a bit deeper into Rodrigo’s fragile, childlike soul–directly showing the extent as to Rodrigo relates to a child prodigy–and “How to Make God Laugh” acts as sort of a coda to the sentiments expressed in “You Go to My Head,” removing Rodrigo from NYC and pushing him to reflect away from the limelight. There’s a vulnerability to Bernal’s performance that I’m willing to bet isn’t in the script; he elevates the character and the show so much so that it feels that his performance should actually exist in a different show. Surprisingly, though, Bernal’s performance also feels like it could very well belong in Mozart in the Jungle’s cartoonish stupor, which is perhaps his greatest achievement of all.
There remains, in season two, some great supporting performances by Bernadette Peters as the orchestra’s manager, Gloria Windsor, who, we find out in season two, CAN ALSO SING (surprise!!) and Malcolm McDowell as the begrudged former conductor, Thomas Pembridge. They’re fun, but they don’t really add any gravitas to the show.
Which brings me to the show’s main problem–it’s not a very ambitious show. While Bernal does a lot of the heavy lifting with his performance, the show itself is extremely thin. Never does the show feel particularly thoughtful or insightful about human relationships, dedication to one’s work, or musical culture. In fact, it feels cliched and silly, and more so in season two where we’re supposed to believe in tea leaves and curses. I suppose one can argue that the show is not invested in conveying important things and it’s meant to be a delightful romp. Sadly, it feels like the show has so much potential to be more than a silly, misguided attempt to make classical music sexy to twenty-first century denizens. Look no further than some recent films about musicians, such as the underrated The Last Quartet, or the excellent Whiplash for examples of films that Mozart in the Jungle could take note of.
I’m not sure where the Coppolas and Alex Timbers are going with this show. Season two ends with a cliffhanger, but we’re sort of assured that everything is probably going to be all right because things rarely turn out badly on this show. That said, dialogue, such as, “I fucking love Bach,” cameos by Beethoven and Mozart, and ice skating jokes about Stravinsky (because Stravinsky is Russian and Russia is cold, get itttt??) can only sustain a show for so long. While there are things still to be explored on this show, I’m not sure how much longer I can stand this low-stakes parade of consumeristic classical music.