What is “Mozart in the Jungle” about, really?

I binge watch “Mozart in the Jungle.”  Why do I do that?  What keeps me coming back for the next episode, the next season.  Season 3 recently became available.  According to most critics, it is a pleasant, but not a great television series in spite of its Golden Globe Award nominations this year and past wins.  For me that was sort of my response at the beginning.  Yet I did come back, and towards the end of Season One, I was returning regularly, regularly like every day.  What, you say, does this have to do with opera?  Hear me out.

“Mozart” is an Amazon TV series, so the access is on demand if you can receive Amazon streaming, and if you have Amazon Prime, the episodes are free.  Thus, I could watch all three seasons and thirty episodes in a row if I so desired, and if it was humanly possible.  It is probably possible since they are half hour episodes, but I do not recommend it.  My wife and I once watched all the episodes of “The Thorn Birds” (eleven hours, I think) on a Saturday, pausing only for bathroom breaks and for carting food from the kitchen to the bedroom. Great series, but we were literally ill and disoriented when they were over.  (By way of explanation, we were much younger then.)  But I digress.  Easy access for watching TV fits my schedule and is an inducement, but there are lots of programs now with these options using services such as Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Cable’s on demand feature.  Why my preferential response to “Mozart”?

First, what is “Mozart in the Jungle” about? Aye, there’s the rub.  Thank God, it’s not about crime, spying, monsters, or super powers; there is no violence.  On the surface the series is about the performers and staff of the New York Symphony Orchestra.  The writers/creators include director, Alex Timbers; actor, Jason Schwartzman; and writer/producer, Roman Coppola.  It is based on oboist Blair Tindall’s book, “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music,” reportedly somewhat of a tell all about sex and drugs of young people trying to make it in the NY classical music scene.  “Mozart” does have its share of sex and drugs, but this is not the focus of the show. 

A distinguishing appeal of the show is that the series is about classical musicians, not rock and rollers. We get to see the backstage, human side of the nerds, maybe not nerds, but certainly nerd-like.  Another appeal of the show is the cast: Gael Garcia Bernal as the unconventional orchestra director, Rodgrigo; Bernadette Peters plays Gloria, the beleaguered orchestra manager, and Malcom McDowell as Thomas, the self-absorbed, outgoing orchestra director, bring a great deal of experience and comic touches to their roles, and an abundance of charm.  Lola Kirke as the young, aspiring oboe player, Hailey, and Saffron Burrows playing Cynthia as the worldly-wise cellist, add emotional depth.  Other excellent character actors add support to this exceptional cast, including Debra Monk as the reigning lead oboe, Betty, not about to relinquish her throne, and the entire cast demonstrates humanity and a camaraderie of purpose in their commitment to their art and the orchestra.  The repeating performers are frequently joined for an episode or two by acting and musical stars.  Season 3 begins with Monica Bellucci playing a Maria Callas-like diva who is joined in one episode by real life opera star Placido Domingo. See, I told you it was opera related, though I wish more episodes involved opera.

Mozart is quite funny, flavored by quirkiness.  Rodrigo frequently receives advice from classical music greats such as Mozart and Bach when no one else is around; these past masters offer chiding and cryptic advice.  It is also creative; one episode is presented as a documentary about the orchestra’s trip to perform at a prison, perhaps foreshadowing Joyce DiDonato’s recent performance at Sing Sing.  And it presents the all too real-life struggle between management and the orchestra members dealing with the financial pressures of keeping a non-self-sustaining enterprise such as an orchestra afloat.  Musicians must be paid and big donors must be found.  The series is not without criticisms.  Mostly these relate to failings to present musical elements correctly, such as how the actors hold their instruments.  Frequently doctors don’t like to watch medical dramas on TV.  I suspect the same would be true for many musicians and "Mozart", though I have read that for many it is a secret pleasure..

All true, but for me it comes down to this.  There are scenes in Mozart that stay with you: Rodrigo’s rejection by a tempestuous love who castigates him for any compromise with commercialism; Hailey’s attempt to play oboe with the Symphony before being ready and her initial success as a budding conductor; and every central player, one by one, subjugating their human failings to a higher calling, the performance of their art.  What Mozart is really about is heart touching moments that define what it means to be human and to bootstrap ourselves to a higher level.  It is unique in television in that it demonstrates the power of art as a higher calling. This certainly applies to opera. Watch it and support the arts.  For me, time and time again, it wins my heart.  And time and time again, I go back for my next dose.

Note to readers:  I prefer to adorn my text with photos when possible, but for this blog report I failed to find photos in the public domain or approved for the press.  I don't wish to violate anyone's copyright, so I will simply refer you to Google Images for photos and to the Internet Movie Database for episode summaries.

Reviews by critics can be found below in chronological order: