'Mozart In the Jungle': TV Review

Mozart in the Jungle S01E01 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Mozart in the Jungle S01E01 Still - H 2014

An acclaimed symphony orchestra in New York gets some fresh blood in the persona of a flamboyant new conductor and a young oboist.

Amazon Studios follows "Transparent" with another, different offering worthy of your streaming. "Mozart" is an intriguing, fresh new dramedy.

Though Amazon Studio's brilliant Transparent got all the press — deservedly so — and came out before any of its most recent batch of finished and green-lit pilots, the streaming giant has other series with potential, none more so than Mozart In the Jungle, which dropped all 10 first season episodes online on Tuesday.

Based on the acclaimed memoir, Mozart In the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music by Blair Tindall, the series is a refreshing situational mix of earnest music, slow-building drama, solid humor and, yes, sex.

What makes Mozart stand out immediately is the setting – and not just New York, which is the backdrop – but the world of classical musicians and their often hardscrabble life, even at the elite level. Mozart is set at the New York symphony orchestra in the midst of a transition. That comes in the persona of the new, flamboyant, passionate and eccentric maestro, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is replacing the regal Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), who was prodded out by the chairwoman of the symphony orchestra's board, Gloria (Bernadette Peters).

Read more The Best Television of 2014

Essentially that's the top-tier management, which gives the series creators, writers and executive producers — Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Alex Timbers and Paul Weitz — a way to break down the hierarchy at an institution that hasn't been dramatized very often. The next tier is the musicians themselves, and Coppola and company make a very smart decision to give the audience access through the ambitions and struggles of Hailey (Lola Kirke), a young oboist living with like-minded musicians and artists struggling to make rent and stay true to their loves in New York.

Hailey is befriended by Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a long-established cellist in the symphony. Cynthia doesn't immediately try to throw Hailey under the bus or make her grovel, if only so she can be appropriately impressed with the world-class musical company she's keeping. Though the pilot (reviewed here earlier when Amazon released its potential projects) is a bit on the wild side when it comes to Cynthia and ends up more whimsical overall than the series eventually becomes, it sets the hook for discovering an institution barely covered in television.

With Hailey as the guide, viewers learn about the lives of the working musicians (a lot of visual jokes go by quickly, so pay attention) and their particular mind-set. That's Mozart's introduction to what becomes the wholly different embodiment of the passionately inflamed musician in Rodrigo, who ruffles more than Thomas's feathers as he takes over.

Enough can't be said about how much Bernal infuses the quirky Rodrigo and becomes the driving force in this series (while Kirke is wonderful as the embodiment of the young, struggling musician, it's to Mozart's credit that it wants to be true to the rigors of the real world and begins to focus more on Rodrigo). Bernal is both likable and magnetic, and makes the eclectic maestro surge on the screen. He alone is worth streaming the series, but, thankfully, there's a lot more going on here.

McDowell manages to take a role about an exiting, egotistic conductor and forge it into something entirely different about aging and raging against the dying light of both creativity and meaning, of purpose and need. It may not have been there on the page, but McDowell gives some existential heft to a role he might otherwise sleepwalk through. Mozart allows Peters to act instead of playing a diva tearing through scenery, and that also grounds this series.

Coppola and Schwartzman, who has a great cameo about a reporter doing a podcast, dole out just enough in these half-hour episodes to keep it light, funny and (by the fourth episode) a bit more brazenly quirky, while also not losing touch with the story's core — which is the music. In a TV landscape were doctors, lawyers and detectives dominate, it's refreshing to find a series about none of that. Mozart feels original and intriguing, like Amazon Studios has struck the right chord again.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine