Jan 8, 2015

[TV] Mozart in the Jungle: Season 1

There is simply too much television going on - especially now that we have folks like Amazon and Netflix creating their own original content on top of traditional networks and pay TV channels. It's amazing how we all manage to keep up with the seemingly never ending tide of new shows that may or may not catch our interest.

I had no idea what to expect from Mozart in the Jungle when I happened upon a promotional poster image. All I saw was that Bernadette Peters was starring in it, and that alone had me curious enough to see what it was about. And mind you, this was around the time the entire series hit Amazon in one go and not earlier on when the pilot episode for the show had first been released.

But after the pilot alone, Tobie and I were in love with the show. On the surface it seemed to be a lot like another shows that try to capture aspects of the creative world like what was glimpsed in Smash. But this show executed things in a much more effect manner, thus resulting in quite the amazing television experience.

Synopsis: Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy drama series developed for Amazon Studios by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timber. It was inspired by the book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall.

The show centers around the New York Philharmonic as their conductor and musical director Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) steps down to take on a new emeritus position in favor of a new conductor taking over. This young man is known primarily as Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) and has taken the music scene be storm given his unconventional ideas. Gloria (Bernadette Peters) and the rest of the board hope that Rodrigo will help make things somehow new and exciting for patrons once more, thus drawing in new revenue.

This is also the story of Hailey (Lola Kirke) a young Oboist who is still struggling to make ends meet with odd jobs including oboe lessons and just about any gig that she can get. She barely makes it to audition for Rodrigo and surprisingly catches his attention. And thus she is given a chance to become involved in the New York Philharmonic. But this world isn't all about beautiful music.

The immediate comparison that comes up a lot is that this is as to music as Kitchen Confidential was for the restaurant industry. And to be fair, I think if you subject any industry to scrutiny you're bound to find the rough edges and the less than ideal things happening behind the scenes. But more than just a rehash of that concept, the show decides to give it a key focus and a pretty strong plot. And thus we have a show that is pretty compelling, more so than Kitchen Confidential's lackluster TV adaptation.

All roads lead to Rodrigo, who is the strange creative genius at the center of this story. Then again, sometimes it's hard to say if he's really the focus or if he's actually the setting itself. People all seem to struggle to respond to him and deal with his alternative approaches to running the orchestra and we don't necessarily see things from his perspective. Most scenes involve him, but it often feels like it's really just so that people can react to what he's doing.

Hailey is equally the protagonist and perhaps the closest we'll get to an audience advocate type of character in this show. Sure, she's very much a part of this world given she's presented as a pretty competent oboist, but at the same time the Philharmonic represents the big leagues for musicians and we get to experience the odd mix of wonder and disgust that comes with this world. I'm not necessarily strongly in favor of Kirke's performance as Hailey thus far, but it's not exactly that terrible either. I guess my challenge is that I just can't distinctly tell her apart from other generic hopeful characters getting a chance to achieve their dreams. I can't even really feel anything regarding her on-screen romance with the dancer fellow. Those stories just don't stand out.

I originally got involved with this show since I wanted to see how Bernadette Peters would do, and she's still quite the distinct acting personality. She doesn't have quite as many scenes as I would have liked, but she's still a delight in each of them. One mind-blowing revelation though - watch how she exits rooms. It's fantastic and the kind of odd quirky behavior that makes her character so appealing.

The writing for this show is phenomenal and there are so many amazing quips and one-liners that you'd think the show was meant to be performed by sassy drag queens or something. And everyone gets their moment in the sun in this regard. It's like the true message of this series is that in order to survive in this musical world, you need to be able to snark and jeer with the best of them. And it's wonderful how all this happens in so short a period of time - I often think that that episodes are a full hour at times due to how many meaningful character interactions take place.

For a show about musical orchestras and classical music, you think that things could get pretty boring really fast. But the creative team managed to find a way to present this world to us in a manner that is riveting, exciting and most of all really engaging. The music is great and it's certainly a key part of the show but your appreciation for the whole thing does not hinge on your ability to identify the composers behind each piece. Instead you vicariously enjoy the beauty of these great works of music through the characters and how they express their love for what they do. And that's quite the achievement for what is presented as something that is predominantly a comedy.

Mozart in the Jungle is a brilliant new series and one that we ended up binge-watching as soon as we got through the pilot episode. It's a unique television experience that didn't even debut on actual TV! Thus the show gets a roaring 5 Rodrigo eccentricities out of a possible 5.

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