Before we get started – this review/discussion is about season 1.
Like…so many people, the boy and I get home from a long day at work, and just want to relax, and not think about the million things going on in the office. The boy more than me, because I am lucky enough where library work tends not to follow you home. TV has been a great way for us to unwind, and we like to find new shows to watch together. There have been some that one or the other of us have watched first (Downton Abbey, True Detective), but we like to find things that are new to both of us. And since the boy is very anti-commercial interruptions (you should hear him when I have to fast-forward through 3 minutes on the DVR!), so we like to find shows that are available on streaming.
A few weeks back, after we’d finished a run of shows (I don’t even remember which ones right now), we were looking for something quick. We’d run through most everything on Netflix, so booted up Amazon, and there at the top in the section for Amazon Original Series was “Mozart in the Jungle”. I’d heard it was nominated for a Golden Globe (turns out it was two nominations, and they won both awards!), and so we sat down having no idea really what we were getting into.
Here’s the spoiler-free summary: Based on a book with the same name by Blair Tindall, Hailey is an oboist in her 20s. She’s a big fan of the New York Symphony, and in one of her jobs in a Broadway pit orchestra, she meets Cynthia, who plays cello for the Symphony (musicians gotta have a few different jobs to make ends meet). Cynthia becomes her “in”, and in a series of events that I’ll gloss over…Hailey becomes the assistant to the Symphony’s new conductor, Rodrigo. Rodrigo (one name only!) is the young, creative, eccentric, prodigy/celebrity of a conductor brought in to succeed Thomas, the conductor who is “retiring”. Our other main character is Gloria, who does fundraising for the Symphony. And that’s all I’ll tell you without spoilers. It’s quite good (you should watch it!), but to discuss it more, I’ll need to talk plot points, so let Hailey and Cynthia provide a break for spoilers. Skip to the bottom for final thoughts and more info…
Ready? Ok – I’m going to focus on the three characters that stood out most to me, and they are Hailey, Cynthia and Rodrigo. It’s a full show (but not so crowded with characters as say, Game of Thrones) and they are the central pieces, but there are still lots of other fun characters to look out for, but these are the juciest.
I liked how Hailey (played unassumingly by Lola Kirke) was very good at the oboe, but not some kind of prodigy herself that would come barging into the Symphony and just rock everyone with her talent. Instead she messes up, because she’s human. And it gives us the wonderful interaction between her and Rodrigo. Every time he says her name – Hai-lai – it is a joy. She’s such a professional perfectionist, such an overachiever, so eager to please, that every time he wants her to do something out of the ordinary – learning to make his yerba mate properly, listening to the music of the city, setting herself free at a fancy party and soaking it all in – she does. And at the same time we see that she’s pursuing her professional goals by trying to get better at oboe, and trying to take classes with Betty who is a ridiculously, unnecessarily bitchy to Hailey.
It’s fascinating to watch Cynthia (who is played by goddess Saffron Burrows), and to see the various choices she makes. She’s gotten where she has because she’s talented, but she’s also beautiful, and she has obviously used that to her advantage over the years, making sure that she’s taken seriously when necessary. Her interactions with the various older men of the orchestra range from comfortable/personal (Thomas, the former conductor, and her lover), flirtatiously professional (Bob, piccolo, head of the musicians union), friendly transactional (Dee Dee, percussionist/drug supplier), and loving friendship (Lazlo, trumpeter). Because of all these relationships with men, it’s wonderful to see her every so often developing stronger friendships with newbie Hailey, and grizzled vet Betty, and to see what life is really like for women who are professionals in the classical performing arts.
Rodrigo is his own magical self. He has ideas about music, and they are so pure and ideal, and at the same time he is full of sexual energy surrounding his wife (from whom he is separated and has a stormy relationship). Their back-and-forth dance becomes the culmination of the show in the last few episodes. And while he goes off into bizarre reveries (imagining conversations with Mozart himself while inspecting antique manuscripts at the music library), and taking the orchestra into new and different experiences (the silent symphony, the field trip to an abandoned lot)…he’s trying to get them to experience old music in a new way, to see it from the perspectives of people for whom this is fresh and wondrous. He doesn’t want to play the traditional fundraising game and be trotted out as a prized collectors item, and when forced to participate, finds different ways to play the game, and usually wins. He’s so optimistic occasionally that it hurts, and he is played by the wondrous Gael García Bernal with such puppy-dog eyes that you can’t help but want him to achieve his lofty, nutty dreams.
The other thing that makes the show work so wonderfully and be so entertaining is that it gives us a glimpse of a unknown world. We have ideas about what being a professional musician would be like – there are plenty of movies and documentaries about the crazy lives of pop and rock musicians. But few of us have the talent and dedication that lets you behind the scenes of classical music groups. The other thing that this show will do is make you want to attend more performances by your local symphony orchestra. The boy and I found ourselves browsing the calendar for the Kennedy Center to see what the NSO will be up to next…and if maybe we could fit it into our schedule. If this show is good for orchestras, and encourages more kids to play instruments, that would be amazing. And the boy and I will enjoy watching every episode that Amazon puts out. We’re partway into season 2, and so far, it’s still glorious.
So…who else has watched Mozart in the Jungle? Were you as surprised as we were when it won not only Best Actor in a Comedy Series, but BEST COMEDY SERIES at the Golden Globes? Did you play an instrument as a child? I didn’t have the coordination, so it’s all amazing to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Details: Mozart in the Jungle, streaming on Amazon Prime.