Like most sensible websites, Grantland published its lists of the best in 2014 TV during the third and fourth weeks of December. That close to Christmas and New Year’s, it’s usually safe to glance away from the Zeitgeist. But 2014 brought us a buzzer-beater, a show good enough to reorder a year-end ranking that arrived slightly too late for last year’s lists and slightly too early for 2015’s: Mozart in the Jungle, the latest original from Amazon Prime, which dropped its full first season in a 10-episode, binge-friendly block on December 23.1 Amazon’s odd timing worked out well for those of us who spent the holidays becoming one with a couch, but for travelers, people with tolerable relatives, and top-10-list completists, Mozart in the Jungle is liable to be lost beneath the waves of returning TV. And that would be a bummer, because Mozart does too many things well to miss out on an audience through a quirk of the calendar.
Also known as the day before Amazon Prime delivered most of my gifts.
The new series, which Amazon picked up as part of its second season of pilots,2 follows the fictional leading lights of a stagnant New York Philharmonic: a visionary incoming conductor; his predecessor, whose best days with the baton are behind him; a 26-year-old oboist who’s practiced but not perfect; an overworked chairwoman; and a world-wise cellist with a painkiller problem. If that description made you think about hitting your browser’s “back” button, you might want to consider an exciting career as a network executive. It took years for actor/producer/developer Jason Schwartzman to convince his collaborators that Mozart in the Jungle, which is based on the same-named 2006 memoir by oboist Blair Tindall, would work on TV. Even more time elapsed before the development team (consisting of Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, Paul Weitz, and Alex Timbers, who passed around writer/director/producer roles from episode to episode) found a network with the desire and the money to make it. Finally, the show had to pass its toughest audition of all: getting the green light from viewers, who reacted positively to the pilot. It’s an upset just that Mozart made it this far. Getting a large group of Americans to listen to classical music isn’t the easiest sell; convincing them to watch people play it is an even taller order.
Along with top-10-staple Transparent and the forthcoming Bosch, among others.
While Mozart might have a niche setting, though, it needn’t have niche appeal. An open mind about classical music is recommended, but no prior knowledge is required.3 Like most televised entrées to an unfamiliar society, Mozart has a nominal protagonist who is an onscreen avatar for the viewer, whose own lack of experience with the world of the show allows us to learn along with her. In this case, our hand-holder is Hailey (Gone Girl’s Lola Kirke), an oboist almost since infancy, who dreams of joining the symphony and lives in a Williamsburg loft populated by — as last year’s casting call proclaimed in all caps — “INTELLECTUAL AVANT GARDE HIPSTER TYPES.” This the first starring TV role for Kirke,4 the younger sister of Jemima, who plays Jessa on Girls — the show that HBO-blocked Mozart. The Kirkes’ close resemblance only heightens the sense that Hailey is living in a bizarro version of Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn, where best friends never fight and Millennials are too dedicated to their careers.
But be warned: If you watch with a violinist, as I did, expect some side-eye. Although Joshua Bell, the genuine violin virtuoso, appears in the pilot’s opening scene, some of the stringed-instrument-wielding actors were no more natural with a bow than Tim Robbins was with a baseball.
Although oddly enough, it’s her second Hailey in the last six months.
Hailey nails a blind audition by “playing with blood” — new conductor Rodrigo’s phrase for finding the magic in music — only to screw up so excruciatingly that she’s dismissed and then rehired as Rodrigo’s assistant, giving her a reason to stick around. Gael García Bernal is brilliant as Rodrigo, the conducting prodigy seeking his own inspiration in order to impart some to an orchestra that’s lost its edge. Bernal’s line deliveries are the show’s most frequent source of humor, but he also supplies some pathos, rarely allowing Rodrigo to swing too far to one side of the wacky-serious spectrum. Like the leads of so many prestige shows, Rodrigo is a difficult man: He’s hard to know, and he rarely obeys orders. Unlike a lot of difficult, iconic characters, though, he’s not an amoral monster. Mesmerizing as it is to watch Walter White or Don Draper be bad, it’s refreshing to be able to like a male lead without wondering what it says about the darkness of one’s soul.
Few other shows use screen time as efficiently as Mozart — which isn’t to say the plot always takes the shortest path between points. Although the first season ends in a predictable place, it veers unpredictably from comedy to drama and lead to lead, just as — if you’ll excuse an on-the-nose simile — a symphony’s movements alter its tempo and key. In its 10 half-hour (or less) episodes, Mozart builds backstories with impressive speed, assembling a deep bench of characters capable of carrying large chunks of the show (with only a few discordant detours). Of the regulars, only Alex, Hailey’s boyfriend, feels flat, probably because he’s the only recurring character who lives outside of her insular, symphony-focused world.
All stages of life are unusually well represented in the cast, thanks to twentysomething Kirke, thirtysomething Bernal, fortysomething Saffron Burrows, sixtysomethings Debra Monk, Mark Blum, and Bernadette Peters, and seventysomething Malcolm McDowell.5 It’s rare for a show to feature such diversity in age without any characters coming off as afterthoughts or caricatures. And even the cameos are strong, particularly John Hodgman as a deceptively sane-sounding sophisticate (not unlike the one he played in The Knick); Jennifer Kim as Rodrigo’s harried original assistant; and Schwartzman as Bradford Sharp, a self-satisfied podcaster6 with an inflated sense of his program’s penetration.
Wait, come back, key demographic! I’m still talking to you.
“Welcome Bach. You’re listening to another edition of B. Sharp … a musical podcast where classical music is our forte.”
Some occupations are hardwired for high stakes and new story lines, which is why TV will always be lousy with lawyers, doctors, police, and politicians.7 But most shows based on those big four are like beautiful people at a bar who can collect strangers’ numbers without the ability to carry a conversation: Showing up and flashing their eye-catching features is enough for an in. Some easy-to-pitch series combine beauty and brains, but many of the mediocre ones can coast by on a steady diet of corpses and courtrooms. For most viewers, a steady diet of Debussy isn’t nourishing enough, so Mozart has to work harder to keep its audience’s interest. Call it the Law of the Unappealing Premise: The less likely a show’s synopsis is to hook a casual viewer, the more likely it is to have hidden qualities that make it worth watching.
Bosch, based on Michael Connelly’s book series, is about a (difficult) homicide detective who’s working on solving a child murder while standing trial for the slaughter of a serial killer — a premise that simultaneously stimulates every pleasure center in a programming director’s brain.
In that sense, Mozart belongs to a rich but limited lineage of workplace shows set in unglamorous, TV-uncommon industries that are integral to their plots:8 Party Down, Parks and Recreation, Slings and Arrows (which might be Mozart’s closest thematic comp). Shows about catering, small-town parks departments, and Shakespearean festivals don’t sell themselves. At some point in its life cycle, each one of them made an executive ask, “You want to make a show about what?” And while many such scripts might be low-probability bets, the ones that survive the development process and manage to make it to air are often special. They offer less material to work with, but all of it feels fresh.
Dunder Mifflin was uncommon and unglamorous, but the Dunderheads could have switched to peddling virtually any product without significantly altering many episodes. The paper was mostly a MacGuffin.
From a purely ratings-driven perspective, none of the shows I just named offers a strong case for taking a risk instead of rubber-stamping a safe, derivative procedural. Party Down made it to 20 episodes; Slings and Arrows, 18. Parks and Rec lasted long enough to become a prerequisite of a pop culture education, but never developed a large enough live audience that it could ever count on coming back. Fortunately for us, we’re living in the age of Too Much TV: For every prestige show we finish, someone commissions two more. As channels and distribution systems multiply, networks will have more airtime (or bandwidth) to fill. And no matter how many serial killers and comic books spawn copycats and spinoffs, some network that’s staring at a hole in its schedule will be desperate enough to OK a show about classical music, if that’s the story a team of talented people wants to tell. This is something to celebrate: The wider the range of shows that can conceivably make it to TV, the deeper the pool of potential artists, and the more diligently we’ll have to manage our DVRs to contain the cornucopia. A vote for Mozart is a vote for variety.
Between its release date, its title, its setting, its decentralized, multi-aged ensemble, and its difficult-to-classify tone, Mozart in the Jungle is begging to be underappreciated. But don’t let its unhip exterior (or its lack of a high year-end ranking) dissuade you from watching one of the best TV shows of 2014. If there’s too much good TV in the world for you to tune in because you’re out of entertaining alternatives, do it to deprive the unimaginative suits who said “no” of the quick cancellation they foresaw.