Let’s be clear on this: Mozart in the Jungle is not a show about Mozart trying to stay alive in the jungle. But it might as well be, given how delightful it is.
Amazon’s musical comedy series surprised some when it walked away with two Golden Globes at the start of this year, but Season 2 saw the already likeable show blossom into a confident, witty gem. With Season 3, it just keeps getting better, cementing the series as one of the nicest, smartest, wittiest and catchiest programmes around.
“Catchiest” is perhaps the key word, as the show unashamedly – and, moreover, unpretentiously – roots itself in classical music, in a way that makes you enjoy the pieces on display, and care about the people playing them, regardless of whether you like orchestras or not. It’s a rare thing for a TV series to take classical music seriously, while still having a sense of humour, and it’s a unique trait that only gets more nuanced and honed – not a bad feat for a show that spent most of its second season in a legal dispute over salaries and pensions between the board of the New York Symphony and the members of the orchestra.
At the heart of it are two key performers: Gael Garcia Bernal as Rodrigo, the maverick conductor who waltzed into the maestro role in the first season, upsetting and charming everyone simultaneously, and Lola Kirke as Hailey, the ensemble’s rising star oboist, who has a will-they-won’t-they duet going on with him. It’s testament to how well written the show is that their romance is never the defining characteristic of either of them, and a testament to the actors that there’s so much else to engage with.
Bernal is brilliant in the lead, settling into his non-tux-wearing creative with an earnestness that is immediately recognisable; he’s an artist constantly lost up his own art, never sure what he wants, where he wants it, just that he loves making music. He sounds insufferable on paper, but he’s adorable on screen, and Bernal’s chemistry (he has great chemistry with everyone) infects the others around him; his passion is too sincere to resist. Lola Kirke, meanwhile, goes from strength to strength, taking Hailey on a continuing journey to find herself, and reach her potential. She’s naive but forthright, nervous but talented, timid but outspoken. It’s a tough line to walk, but Kirke runs down it backwards with a blindfold.
It’s no coincidence that they take centre stage in the show’s third run, as the still-disbanded orchestra splits into two strands: the ones in New York still fighting for their rights (a scene with an inflatable rat is enjoyably ridiculous), and our main duo seeking new opportunities in Venice.
Hailey, blackmailed into leaving New York over her brief fling with Rodrigo, is now with the Andrew Walsh Ensemble, presided over by Andrew Walsh (a hilariously arrogant Dermot Mulroney), who only plays pieces where he gets a show-off solo. Rodrigo, meanwhile, jumps at the chance to work with legendary singer Alessandra (Monica Bellucci) for her comeback concert. Soon enough, their paths all cross, and we end up with something of a threesome – and, true to form, Mozart in the Jungle’s writers get the balance just right.
Bellucci, who gets more to do in one minute than she did in the entirety of Spectre, is a marvellous addition, slotting right into the ensemble like she’s always been on the front row. She’s composed, imperious, impeccably saucy – and, of course, completely bonkers. Bellucci is note-perfect at both, able to stand still and deliver Ave Maria – a scene that takes its time to admire the atmosphere of an empty concert hall, something that you’d never see on any other programme – but also hide in a barrel and talk nonsense about ducks. She’s joined by Christian De Sica as her agent, Beppi, an equally colourful Italian, who only highlights how non-stereotypical she is. (Beppi, tellingly, gets better whenever he’s on screen with Bernal, a sign of how well-tuned this ensemble cast is.)
All the while, we still get plenty of time to hang out with Gloria (the wonderful Bernadette Peters) and the other Symphony players, from eccentric drummer Dee (John Miller) and the amusing, obstinate Union Bob (Mark Blum) tothe sensual Cynthia (Saffron Burrows). A brief, alarming detour into bubbles and flashing lights is a treat, but as always, these people are at their best when playing music – it’s not just a subject or motif for the show; it’s an extension of who the characters are. When Burrows gets the chance to go off-message with her musical stylings, she visibly enjoys it – and we do too.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the bitter, old former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell). A character who could have become irrelevant after one episode, he remains as fun to watch as ever, this time also taking the chance to venture into modern music territory. Faced with samples, loops and stuff about Martians, McDowell’s hysterical combination of pretentiousness and bewilderment melts into joy, as he finds himself nodding along with a strange new beat. This could be a one-note, fish-out-of-water joke, but it’s typical of Mozart in the Jungle that instead of laughing at its characters, it laughs with them.
That empathy shines in one standout sequence that sees Rodrigo explain to Hailey how conducting works. A swirling mix of emotion, excitement and the informative nature of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, it sees him reintroduce every part to us, one by one – a commentary that will make non-classical music fans appreciate the harmony of instruments, but also makes us see every familiar character in a whole new light. In this often-heralded “golden age of TV”, the world is full of sleek, cynical, calculating shows, from Westworld to Mr. Robot, and, while they can be masterpieces in their own right, it’s a genuine pleasure to have something so upbeat to watch. It’s not that Mozart in the Jungle is always happy; it has a warm-heartedness that never fails to bring a smile to your face. And that lightness of touch isn’t easy to pull off; this is one of the easiest things to watch on telly, but that doesn’t mean it’s shallow. As Season 3 sees it build in volume, substance and theme, Mozart in the Jungle remains a source of fantastically composed comedy that’s still finding new ways to play the same notes. Long may that continue.
Season 1 to 4 of Mozart in the Jungle are now available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.