I’ve not been exactly binge-watching this show, but certainly watching the whole two seasons in the course of about the last fortnight or so, occasionally interrupted by our 20-month-old son having a shit-fit in his cot because he can’t locate one of the three dummies he has to have positioned in there in the event of him arising from deep sleep to semi-wakefulness. But enough personal detail.
So, in case you haven’t noticed, this show is a ‘dramedy’, which is the 21st century equivalent of what used to be called a ‘gentle comedy’ (meaning a basically comic take on a subject which doesn’t quite have the balls to be full-blown comedy) about a fictional orchestra, the New York Symphony, which in episode 1 kisses goodbye to its incumbent chief conductor Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) and says hello to its new one, Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal).
There are obvious casting gags going on here, notably in having Malcolm Mc-Bleeding-Dowell playing the supposed Old Fart character. McDowell was once one of the most terrifying actors out there, thanks to his spectacular work in A Clockwork Orange and If …, and in this show he’s definitely playing a Young Turk Grown Old. Thomas is said to have conducted his generation’s definitive performances of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which I guess identifies him with Carlos Kleiber, except that Thomas, unlike Kleiber, is gregarious, outgoing and still has this idea that he’s really a composer, which Kleiber didn’t seem to be too bothered about. Rodrigo himself is what TV Tropes would call a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the LA Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel, except that Rodrigo is Mexican and Dudamel is Venezuelan. (Also, while most famous musician cameos in the show have seen people playing themselves, Dudamel’s cameo was in a brief scene where Rodrigo was guest conductor for the LA Philharmonic; Dudamel played the LA Philharmonic’s stage manager, joking with Rodrigo about how their usual conductor wasn’t very good.)
On the whole I think it’s a greatly enjoyable show, except for the times when it stops trying, and resorts to being broadly satirical. Most of these moments involve the character of Anna Maria, Rodrigo’s Wacky Performance Artist wife. You feel bad for poor Nora Arzeneder, the French actress given this steaming-pile-of-horse-shit of a role: Anna Maria’s schtick is that she’s a superbly gifted violinist but in her performances she always subverts her own talent by playing something beautifully and then smashing her violin as part of a ludicrous rant about the ‘bourgeoisie’, or some such. Anna Maria behaves like a 13-year-old’s idea of a romantic artist; in one episode, Rodrigo persuades her to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in front of the NY Symphony, and she gets as far as the actual performance and plays the first couple of dozen bars beautifully, before stopping and insisting that she can’t go on and that it’s all bullshit and she can’t play for these ‘pigs’, going on to implore Rodrigo to leave this idiotic life and come away with her, etc. It was all very predictable, and I won’t spoil the rather predictable outcome. Nobody as chaotic and stupid as this would have risen in the arts to the kind of eminence that we are invited to believe Anna Maria has; in real life, she would never have agreed to play the thing in the first place, because it would have meant giving up all control as an artist about how she was presented, but they wanted to give Rodrigo a tempestuous private life, so that’s where they went.
Still, the show has great things about it. One of these is Lola Kirke’s performance in what’s actually the main role, Hailey Rutledge, a talented oboist who starts out playing in pit bands and teaching oboe to a rich kid more interested in her tits than in practising. Hailey’s dramatic arc in season 1 is about her desperately trying to find a place for herself in the orchestra, which already has a perfectly good oboist in the seriously badass Betty Cragdale, played with wonderful acidity by veteran Broadway actress Debra Monk. Lola Kirke is the sister of the better-known Jemima Kirke, star of Girls; as Hailey she nails the gloomy, obsessive quality of good classical musicians, utterly dedicated to practising because that’s the only way you get anywhere, but she also conveys Hailey’s lack of social skills and her general awkwardness by means of Hailey’s peculiar goofy laugh, a sort of feminine variation on Muttley from Wacky Races‘s ‘Huhhh-huhhh-huhhh!‘.
There are three other great women characters in the show. One is Cynthia Taylor, head of the cello section, played with immense calm and inner steel by Saffron Burrows. It’s established fairly early on that Cynthia is both a.) a good sort and b.) seriously up for it; when Hailey is trying out for the oboe section, Cynthia takes her out on the town, gives her a good time and good advice, and pairs her off with a sexy bartender who happens to be a talented dancer. Cynthia is also Thomas’s mistress, which is less interesting than you might think; her character comes into much better focus in the second season, when the orchestra runs into labour troubles and hires its own lawyer, Nina, played by Gretchen Mol. Nina-and-Cynthia becomes a story in itself, one that itself riffs off Saffron Burrows’s own visibility as a bisexual woman. But the coolest thing about Cynthia is not, in my view, her sexuality, although it’s nice to have a character who is attracted to whoever she’s attracted to and doesn’t worry about it. Cynthia’s true quality is that, unlike the nervous and would-be devious first violinist Warren Boyd, she’s the real leader of the orchestra.
The next is Gloria Windsor, head of the orchestra’s board of directors, played by Bernadette Peters. Peters’ screen career has been relatively limited — if you’re like me, you probably saw her in Steve Martin’s The Jerk and not a lot else, but that was in 1979. She has has a seriously distinguished career on Broadway, most famously in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and a lot of that feeds into Gloria, who besides being dedicated to the orchestra is also a born performer, which serves her well in fundraiser nights with sponsors. This part of her character culminates when she turns out to have long-abandoned ambitions as a lounge singer; in a season 2 episode, Gloria shows up at an open mic night in a NYC bar, and delivers a show-stopping performance of Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 hit ‘Come On-a My House’, very much modelled on Julie London’s version rather than Clooney’s, but, in context, eclipsing both.
The third is Hailey’s roommate Lizzy, played by Hannah Dunne. In the earlier episodes, Lizzy is rather annoying, a sketch of a hipster, but to the show’s credit, they gave the character more background and Dunne’s commitment makes Lizzy into one of the show’s most appealing characters. Lizzy at her best injects energy into every scene she’s in, and when in one episode she delivers a seriously good impersonation of Billie Holiday, that too gives her character some needed depth.
So, why am I writing this? Just to give more boost to a show that’s already been given a Golden Globe, one of the less-respected awards on the circuit? Mozart in the Jungle has some genuinely sound things to say about the life of a classical musician, and the differences between being a professional musician and an amateur, and the power of music. It sometimes lurches into silly caricature, but not too often. With a bit of audience love, it could mature still further and be a genuinely great show. Right now it’s just very good.
I haven’t mentioned Gael Garcia Bernal because most of the interesting roles in this show are female, but he takes to TV like a natural, he’s a wonderful comic presence without ever losing the character’s basic dignity and intelligence, and his best scenes convince you that Rodrigo is a bit of a genius at finding ways to connect people with music. All this happens in spite of the fact that he never, ever conducts in a convincing manner. But he talks such a great game that you buy it anyway.
OK, that’s me done raving about this show. I neither expect, nor will be disappointed by the absence of, grace and favour from Amazon, whose show it is. You can read all my Amazon customer reviews here. No, I’m not bitter that I wrote all that for nothing.