Review: Amazon's 'Mozart in the Jungle' gets in tune over time
Not every TV show benefits from the binge-viewing model that Netflix and Amazon are building their streaming video businesses around. Some shows like "Mad Men" are better off being consumed only an episode a week, with plenty of time in between to savor and analyze what just happened. Others like "Homeland" (at its best) or even Netflix's flagship drama "House of Cards," traffic in crazy plot twists and cliffhangers that can lose their potency when you have the ability to immediately load up the next installment.
But plenty of series improve greatly when watched in rapid succession, whether they were made with this new model in mind or not. In some cases, like "The Wire," it's incredibly useful to see a lot of episodes in a row just to figure out who the hell everybody is and what they're doing. In other cases, like "Parks and Recreation" or Amazon's new "Mozart in the Jungle," the binge is helpful because it allows the viewer to zip through early growing pains and get to the good stuff before they lose interest.
"Mozart," whose 10-episode debut season was released today on Amazon Prime, is set in the classical music world of New York. It stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the flamboyant and mercurial new conductor of the city's once-great symphony orchestra, Lola Kirke (sister to Jemima on "Girls") as a young oboist looking for her shot at the big time, Saffron Burrows as a veteran cellist with a healthy sex life and a balky wrist, and Malcolm McDowell as the longtime conductor nudged out by Bernal's arrival, plus recurring roles for Debra Monk as a senior oboist with no use for Kirke and Bernadette Peters as the executive trying to keep the orchestra afloat.
Back in February, I thought the debut episode was one of the better members of Amazon's second class of TV pilots, even if it lagged well behind "Transparent." Some of the attempts at comedy felt a bit too broad and/or on-the-nose (particularly a sequence where Burrows' Cynthia compares musicians' sexual technique to the instruments they play), but there was a clear specificity to the world, and the sequence where Kirke's Hailey participated in a classical music drinking game against a cocky flutist pointed to a show about this world that I would want to watch.
I watched the next six episodes last week, and the remaining three this morning, and it was gratifying to see "Mozart" — produced by Roman Coppola (who directs the show's gorgeous seventh episode), Jason Schwartzman (who has a couple of cameos as host of a classical music podcast), Paul Weitz and John Strauss — evolve quickly and get over some early stumbling blocks.
The first few episodes, for instance, are focused on the tensions between McDowell's Thomas and Bernal's Rodrigo, even though it's a fairly trite battle of old versus new, and not helped by Rodrigo behaving so eccentrically as to feel less like a character than like a bundle of quirks shoved under a curly mop of hair. Rodrigo eventually gets a haircut, and soon after becomes a more human character — still strange and unpredictable, but with recognizable motivations and an actual character arc. Bernal often chooses fairly dark and serious roles; it's nice to see him in a more comic vein, even as he and the producers find ways to show how much Rodrigo cares about the orchestra and music in general.
Neither the rivalry of the conductors nor Hailey's attempt to become part of the orchestra are compelling plot threads in the early going. Fortunately, the show pivots midway through the season to focus more on the orchestra itself, whether the many types of players in it (the drug-dealing percussionist, the piccolo player/union rep who's always hassling Rodrigo about mandatory breaks) or Rodrigo's attempts to turn them into more than the sum of their individual talents. There are a few awkward pivots required to get there — Hailey transitions from someone who's clearly part of this world into the audience point of view character, there for Rodrigo and others to explain the world to her/us — but the results are worth it. It's more a light-hearted drama than a comedy (I'm not sure I laughed out loud at anything in the 10 episodes, though I smiled a lot), and because I could watch the episodes so closely together, I was never tempted to just give up and watch something else, whereas I could easily imagine forgetting about it altogether after episode 3 or 4 if it was on a traditional weekly schedule.
There are other half-hours I might recommend first as a holiday binge if you haven't seen them yet (Amazon alone is streaming three of my favorite shows of the year in "Transparent," "Review" and "Broad City"). But "Mozart" is an interesting, colorful look at a world I don't know well, filled with fun performances (later episodes feature Wallace Shawn, John Hodgman and Jerry Adler), and you can watch the show improve right along with the orchestra itself. I'm glad I got to watch that evolution in short order.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com