Perhaps the pilot with most promise, Amazon Studios delivers to us Mozart in the Jungle, a comedy about being a performance artist in New York. Centered mostly around a green oboist from North Carolina, it successfully blends hints of a mainstream sitcom and the pleasantly dry appeal of a Bored to Death. That, combined with its subject matter, however, may result in a very niche appeal.
Oboist Hailey currently teaches private lessons and plays in the pit at a hilariously awful Styx jukebox musical called “Oedipus Rocks,” but she has higher aspirations, ones that match her significant level of talent. One night at the classic rock/musical theater abomination, she meets Cynthia, a cellist who is making ends meet with this gig and her spot as first chair at the New York Symphony.
This sets Hailey down the path of forgoing her generic musical career of teaching youngsters and scraping together nightly gigs and attempting to jump into one of the most prestigious symphonies in the world. It happens at a fortuitous time as the old conductor played by Malcolm McDowell reluctantly steps down to let Gael García Bernal’s hotshot Rodrigo take over.
Obviously written by some folks with a musical background (namely Alex Timbers, though Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman have their distinct ingredients thrown in the pot), it is rife with references to a musical life with pinpoint accuracy. The drama would not be out of place in an actual documentary on any orchestra in the world (the show is actually based on a memoir called Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music).
The problem is that this has the potential to limit the show’s audience. One of the opening moments of the show actually has Cynthia running through a litany of old band jokes that make analogous comparisons to what you play and what you’re like in the sack. It’s so real and comparable to my time as a musician that it hurts. And Hailey’s entire approach to trying to “make it” and dividing her desires between being outgoing and responsible can be identifiable by pretty much anyone with a pulse.
But then other times, it seems like the show wants to be more outlandish. Rodrigo is an entirely fantastical character that is basically a musical savant with a visual panache that makes you immediately like or hate him. He’s can only exist in on a screen. And when Hailey engages in a play-off competition in the middle of a raging party that involves spinning a bottle, improving licks in particular genres, and taking shots, that simply doesn’t happen.
The humor, though, is spot-on for what the show is. The jokes flow between situational remarks and remarks on universal situations. There are moments that are genuinely funny and also progress development between characters. It rarely falls into the trap of making jokes for the sake of making jokes (they are, however, almost all entirely dry).
Given the pedigree of the show, however, I would like to believe that if the show continues, it would drop what semblance it has of reality and delves full-on into its creators’ collective whimsy. Coming from Schwartzman and Coppola, its strengths would obviously be in the odd and absurd, but the grounded parts of Mozart in the Jungle are similarly compelling. It would be great to see the show get picked up and see how that mix plays out.
Final Score: 8 out of 10