Released two days before Christmas, the latest original Amazon series, Mozart in the Jungle, is a great little present for fans of breezy comedy and classical music. Based on a memoir by Blair Tindall, it’s the story of a young woman’s struggle to pursue a music career in New York City. Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke) is a talented but inexperienced oboist, making ends meet by giving private lessons and performing cheesy Broadway gigs. A random encounter with a moonlighting ‘cellist, Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), leads unexpectedly to the chance of a lifetime: an audition with the New York Philharmonic. This casts her into the orbit of the Philharmonic’s fiery new hotshot conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal), forging an odd working relationship that changes her life forever.
Pitched as a tale of “sex, drugs, and classical music,” Mozart in the Jungle is quick-witted, swiftly paced, and loads of fun, especially for fans familiar with the quirks of its specific subject matter. It pokes good-hearted fun at the peculiar sensibilities and group dynamics of musical organizations, but also manages to tap into the artistic temperament and the particular problems and life decisions of the creative lifestyle. Alas, the realism is undercut by poorly choreographed musicianship: by and large, the actors and directors fail to convincingly “air guitar” the musical performances. I suspect this will distract many viewers, but it didn’t particularly bother me, because the series displays a core understanding of the musical mindset, and there’s some powerful sentiment lurking just behind the hijinks. Every now and then, scenes of real beauty creep out of its all-over-the-map storylines, and the cast is very likeable. Leading the way is Bernal; based on an actual composer, Rodrigo is the energetic heart of the series, and Bernal is riveting. Kirke makes for a sympathetic and engaging lead, and the supporting cast is loaded with talent. I was particularly fond of Hannah Dunne as Hailey’s roommate Lizzie, and Debra Monk as a tough-as-nails, unforgiving rival oboist, Betty.
On the other hand, it’s kind of a structurally slapdash affair, its episodes not particularly satisfying individually. The show doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with headliner talent in Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell. And there are some troubling plot missteps late in the season involving relationship dynamics, especially around Rodrigo’s catalytic marriage to a psycho-girlfriend performance artist named Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder). So it’s not the most sure-handed series I’ve ever watched. But I still quite enjoyed it; the details aren’t always perfect, but Bernal and Kirke propel the action winningly, and it’s got the right spirit. Ultimately I found it a fast, funny, and effortlessly watched mini-marathon, that reminded me a little of Slings & Arrows.