It takes a little while to find its rhythm, but Mozart in the Jungle turns out to be one of the better shows Amazon Studios has placed in its stream. Set in the world of a fictional New York symphony orchestra, Mozart stars Gael García Bernal as a sweet-tempered rebel conductor, hired to boost attendance and charm wealthy donors. He immediately disrupts the orchestra's staid habits by hiring a young, talented, but inexperienced oboist played by Lola Kirke.
The set-up centers around Bernal's Rodrigo, a long-haired wonder-boy whose fame is mass-cultural enough to make him a far more attractive box-office draw than the current maestro, Malcolm McDowell’' Thomas. McDowell can do affronted haughtiness in his sleep, but he's very lively in his snippy exchanges with Rodrigo, and completely charming when he's called upon to raise funds for a group of posh dowagers who sound as though they were all instructed to sound like the Marx Brothers's Margaret Dumont. The stand-out in this crowd, however, is Bernadette Peters as Gloria, the symphony president. Peters is so beguiling, it makes you wonder yet again why no one's ever been able to build a hit TV series around her.
Kirke's oboist, Hailey, in her role as newcomer to the orchestra, is meant to be our eyes and ears in this novel-for-TV workplace. The first episode is a bit pokey and obvious — it's written (by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers) as though viewers will be shocked that classical musicians can be drug-taking horndogs, as though being in an orchestra isn't like any other sort of job, with all sorts of behaviors and personalities and politics. (The show is based on a book by Blair Tindall whose trite subtitle tells you everything: Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music.) But stick with Mozart, because it gets better and better.
In subsequent episodes, Rodrigo becomes more than an impish rebel, and it's nice that the producers don't have Hailey falling into his arms too soon — such predictability is avoided. And having an orchestra as supporting players allows for a wide range of characters and familiar faces to pop up. Saffron Burrows has a solidly complex role as a cellist who's more than just a romantic partner for the maestro. Look for The Good Wife's Jerry Adler somewhere behind the woodwinds, and Debra Monk is excellent as a first-chair oboist threatened by Hailey's abrupt arrival.
If you ever saw the fine Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows about the backstage shenanigans of a Shakespeare company, you'll have some idea what Mozart in the Jungle seems to be aiming for: A lot of broad comedy tempered by moments of drama, all of it swaddled in a romantic view of high culture. As a guy who likes my culture both high and low, I was won over.
Mozart in the Jungle premieres Tuesday, Dec. 23 on Amazon Prime.