What the Hell is Mozart in the Jungle?



Just last month at the Golden Globes, a little Amazon series called Mozart in the Jungle—which takes the audience behind the scenes of the classical music world—came out of nowhere and won two of the highest television awards of the night: Best Television Series – Comedy; and Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy for Gael García Bernal, who stars as the eccentric new conductor of the New York Symphony, Rodrigo de Souza. Mozart, based on a memoir of the same name, is charming, whimsical, funny, and full of wit. It is also, however, too reliant on archetypes and tropes, and has a bad habit of pulling away when it should dig deeper, and taking bizarre risks when it probably shouldn’t (Rodrigo’s hallucinations of Mozart, for one). It is an interesting show, certainly, but whether it is interesting because it’s about the scandal behind the classical music world or because it is actually interesting is less clear.


The show follows Hailey Rutledge, an oboist who dreams of playing with the New York Symphony and instead gives oboe lessons to rich families on the Upper East Side. If Mozart relies on archetypes, Hailey is the ingénue (but think more Karen Cartwright in Smash rather than Mary Pickford). However, Hailey is one of the few times the series manages to subvert and play on these tropes rather than just fall into them. Lola Kirke is a huge part of that. She plays Hailey with a determined, deliberate passion. She is frank, inexperienced, humble, and funny. It would have been easy for Hailey to be an audience conduit, but Kirke grounds her and keeps her a character in her own right. Hailey auditions for the symphony (late, but of course Rodrigo just happens to still be in the auditorium), sort of makes it, and screws it up by dropping her oboe in her first rehearsal—then ends up becoming Rodrigo’s assistant.


Rodrigo, played by Bernal, is a harder character to pin down, despite Bernal’s remarkable performance. As the show starts, Rodrigo is the Mexican upstart conductor who shatters the (very white) rigid traditionalism of the classical music scene in New York City. The function of Rodrigo’s character, rather than the character itself, is where the strength lies. There is an irony in his immigrant status: were he French, Italian, German, or even Spanish, he would have fit right in with the elitism of the upper class. Yet he is Mexican, and so at every turn he is exoticized or put down. Rodrigo is incredibly good-natured, but loses his temper when his long, curly hair (cut off right after) is fetishized for an ad campaign. He cannot pronounce Hailey’s name (calling her Hy-ly), and it’s done in clear (and funny) commentary on how the names of people of color and immigrants are often disrespected and Americanized in the US. Those are the some of the smartest scenes that Mozart has to offer, and definitely a credit to the writing team. Less of a credit, however, are Rodrigo’s hallucinations, which only come off as gimmicky. He often falls into cliché as well, especially in regards to his tempestuous relationship with his performance musician wife, Anna María, which comes off as reminiscent of Vicky Christina Barcelona—and that’s not a compliment.


Mozart has a good supporting cast too, but doesn’t always know what to do with them. Lizzie for example (played by Hannah Dunne), Hailey’s alternative roommate who secretly comes from the same elite world that surrounds the show, hovers on the fringe with half-realized storylines that only really seem to further Hailey’s, and has so much more potential than that. Cynthia (Saffron Burrows, who is stunning and absolutely entrancing in every one of her scenes) on the other hand, who plays a cellist in the symphony and opened the doors for Hailey, is much better done. In a show about classical musicians, at least one character had to have tendinitis, hide it out of sheer stubbornness to admit it’s a problem, and eventually develop an addiction to painkillers. Cynthia fills this requirement, yet she manages to transcend that—which cannot be said about every character. Cynthia is kind and exudes a sort of quiet loneliness. She enjoys casual sex and is involved in an affair with Thomas Pembridge (a hilarious Malcolm McDowell), the New York Symphony’s married previous conductor, yet there’s a sense that she’s never satisfied—and a reference to a given up solo career confirms it. She is the character to watch, and I can only hope the second season brings her further into the spotlight.



All in all, Mozart in the Jungle is a fun show. It’s pleasant and easy to watch, and the music is obviously incredible. There are even a couple of moments of profound truth, though those are too far and few between, and Mozart tends to make the expected move. Case in point: the development of Hailey and Rodrigo’s relationship. Hailey is accused (several times) of sleeping with Rodrigo, and while they each have their own partners (Rodrigo’s Anna María, Hailey’s Alex—the dancer who gives it all up, making Hailey question why she’s pursuing oboe in the first place) there are hints of romantic tension. The predictable route leads to romance, and while I’d hoped throughout the season that it wouldn’t happen, the last episode ends with the inevitable kiss between them. It was entirely disappointing. That being said, however, Mozart is good enough to have hope that the second season shows growth, and it’s good enough to actually watch it to find out.


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