This review is based on the first seven episodes of Mozart in the Jungle’s second season.
Ask anyone for their favourite TV show of 2014 and Mozart in the Jungle isn’t likely to appear on the list. Amazon’s original comedy is by far its most unusual commission: a show about an orchestra, even starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a sexy conductor, is only destined for a relatively niche audience, especially in such a crowded TV landscape.
For those who watched the first season, though, there was charm in the series’ unique subject matter – after all, when was the last time you heard a full symphony orchestra playing on the small screen, not just as background accompaniment, but as a musical feat in its own right? Even with the show’s haphazard story-telling, the result hit most of the right notes in most of the right order.
Season 2 arrives after Amazon Studios has undergone something of a coming-of-age, winning Golden Globes for Transparent and wowing audiences and critics alike with The Man in the High Castle. Mozart in the Jungle has also got its share of acclaim, bagging its own Golden Globe nominations, including one for Bernal. It’s only apt, therefore, that it should walk back into the arena with its head held high.
That confidence ripples down every octave of the piece. What once seemed like directionless writing is now comfortably casual in its approach, happy to hop between concerts and cocktail parties, from the back of limos to the streets of Mexico, from one bedroom to another. Shaking off Difficult Second Album Syndrome, the show breezes past in a light flurry of entertainment, never concerned with structure or gripping narratives. That should be a problem, but miraculously, it isn’t.
It chimes in with Amazon’s creative strategy, which is, essentially, to let its talent get on with it – the streaming site, more than most, has mastered the act of binge-viewing, with each episode here (just as in Transparent) flowing together like chapters in a book, never relying upon cliffhangers to keep you tuning in. Rather, the series relies upon the tune itself to make you want to hear more. It works: before you know it, you’ve almost finished the whole record.
In embracing the programme’s style, the showrunning trio of Roman Coppola, Paul Weitz, and Jason Schwartzman have also developed a natural sense of who their leads are: the focus, more than ever, is on Gael’s maestro Rodrigo; Lola Kirke’s oboist and frustrated assistant, Hailey; Malcolm McDowell as ousted conductor Thomas; Saffron Barrows’ sultry cellist Cynthia, Thomas’ sometime lover; and chairwoman Gloria (Bernadette Peters). The rest of the ensemble previously felt like cardboard cutouts with their stereotypical foibles and artistic hang-ups (see: the worldly Debra Monk as delightfully acidic oboe veteran Betty and Joel Bernstein as angst-ridden first violinist Warren), but now, they glide in and out with ease, never feeling like they’re competing for screen-time; they’re colourful grace notes that are pleased to be there for colour’s sake.
The cast has never been better. Mark Blum as “Union Bob” emerges as a surprisingly sympathetic contender for Cynthia’s affections, while Wallace Shawn once again steals scenes as neurotic piano player Winslow. Brennan Brown continues to impress as concerned investor Edward Biben, who locks horns with Gloria as the stalling orchestra finds itself potentially without funding – between this and his turns in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the deceptively diverse Brown has put the Orange adverts a long way behind him. Even Jason Schwartzman slots into the supporting roster as the new boyfriend of Hailey’s roommate, Lizzie (Hannah Dunne), a pretentious podcaster with a taste for obscure instruments – “Nothing resonates like rhinoceros foreskin,” he observes in one of many passing one-liners.
That sense of humour is always there, but never undermines the serious passages, whether it’s Hailey trying to get out from Rodrigo’s shadow to become a member of the orchestra in her own right or an inappropriate relationship between one of the players and the group’s new lawyer (an enjoyably aggressive Gretchen Mol), representing them in the financial dispute. Instead, it adds a bass note to the overall chord, grounding everything in the slightly hysterical world of highly strung musicians.
It’s a deft balance that is easy to overlook when compared to less subtle comedies on TV. It’s summed up perfectly by Dermot Mulroney as the lothario cellist Andrew Walsh, who beds girls and photographs them with tattoos afterwards. Slimey, loathsome and destined to drive apart a central couple, he’s nonetheless amusing at every turn. His guest appearance crescendoes to a beautiful climax in Episode 4, Touché Maestro, Touché, which is directed by Schartzman in his directorial debut. The actor and writer, who has always been at home in the whimsical limbo between awkwardness and comedy, is in his element here, drifting away from the action to take us to a party where we see the legendary Lang Lang and other luminaries playing not piano but ping pong – only Mozart in the Jungle would have cameos from musicians and not see them perform with their instruments. (Even when composer Anton Coppola turns up as an old-school oboist, he’s more concerned with mixing drinks.)
That freewheeling style is what Mozart in the Jungle is all about. The same episode sees Bernadette let her hair down on stage in a jazzy number that oozes class and sex appeal, but also ends with an understated sting of sophistication (plus a welcome spotlight on Sandro Isaack as one of the backstage hands, Pavel). Throughout the rest of the season, meanwhile, the cast revel in the open possibilities: Malcolm McDowell has rarely been seen having more fun as Thomas, doing mushrooms and waking up shouting things like “Oh, for a muse of fire!” with ridiculous pomp. Gael, meanwhile, sashays between confused and carefree, even selling his chats with an imaginary Mozart with a convincing madness that didn’t always work in Season 1.
While the overall interaction between the group produces that varied, vaguely unpredictable harmony, though, it’s Lola Kirke who is the main attraction: fresh from her breakout turn in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, she’s given the chance to do more than simply be nervous; Hailey has gone from timid sidekick to flourishing starlet, navigating her way between her wannabe-dancer boyfriend and her loyalty to Rodrigo, on whom she still has a crush. Kirke’s range of expressions alone is virtuosic, changing key from drama to comedy with a twitch of a smile, giving the whole programme a likeable heart, without which it could easily be a bunch of unengaging histrionics.
It’s fitting, then, that Hailey’s story of finding herself should mark the whole series (and the stalling orchestra) doing exactly the same. Will Mozart in the Jungle ever be a must-see, mainstream hit? No, but this surprisingly consistent second season confirms it as an easy-listening (and easy-viewing) treat, not least because of its gorgeous soundtrack, which celebrates all the familiar classical favourites as works of art in their own right. The show earned a Golden Globe nomination this year for Best TV Series: Musical or Comedy. At at time when gritty superheroes, drug cartels, political murders and fantasy epics are competing for your attention, Mozart in the Jungle isn’t just a rare piece of light, upbeat fun, it’s managed to become something genuinely original: not just a musical or a comedy, but a musical comedy. Halfway through one of the show’s many tangents, Hailey and her roommate eye up Rodrigo’s new assistant. “What do you see?” asks Lizzie. “I see Mike making guests feel uncomfortable,” says Hailey. “I see an energetic young man full of potential who lives and breathes music,” comes the reply. The show continues without pausing for reflection.
All 10 episodes of Mozart in the Jungle Season 2 will be available to watch exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from Wednesday 30th December, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you want free next-day delivery on Amazon products too, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.