I’m still not convinced that anyone anywhere in the world watches Mozart in the Jungle.
—Kate Knibbs, theringer.com, October 17, 2017
I watch Mozart in the Jungle. I’m the only one. It’s my lonely burden. Often I wonder why I carry it. With other shows, even unpopular shows, even fantastically unpopular shows, you can generally round up a few like-minded fans to talk things over with. We live in a big world; even Joey gets a subreddit. With Mozart, it’s just me. Well, me and the infinite vacuum of space. Imagine being alone with your opinions!
Actually, I do have one friend who watches Mozart in the Jungle. She lives 8,700 miles away, in Mumbai. It’s comforting to know she exists, even if the 12.5-hour time difference makes it challenging to fav each other’s live-tweets.
It was this friend, Supriya, who introduced me to the show. I was in India, researching a story about man-eating tigers. I had just come out of an actual jungle. We went for coffee at a literary cafe in Delhi. Supriya has worked for some nosebleed-inducingly prestigious magazines in India; famous writers and editors kept breezing by our table to say hi to her. I was dazzled. What TV shows should I be watching, sophisticated friend??
“Have you seen Mozart in the Jungle?” she asked.
Hm. Had I even heard of Mozart in the Jungle? I wracked my brain. I had a vague sense, possibly because of the word “Mozart” in the title, that it was about classical music. I had an equally vague sense, possibly because of the word “jungle” in the title, that it was about a megalomaniacal Victorian rubber baron who wore white linen suits and tried to found an opera company in Manaus.
“It’s about a symphony orchestra in New York City,” she said. “It’s not always great, but I sort of like it. It’s rare to see a show about a man who tries to be good and has the capacity to change.”
When I got home, I started watching, via Amazon Prime Video. Now, my goal in this essay is to trick you into watching Mozart in the hope that I will someday be less lonely, so let me concede up front that the first part of Supriya’s review was correct. Mozart in the Jungle is not always great. Some of the ways in which it is not great include: as a show about classical music, the thing it is ostensibly about; as a venue for well-written dialogue and character development; as a compelling story; as a chronicle of believable relationships; as a set of splashy plot twists designed to make people type “DEAD” on social media. In fact, the series does not excel at many of the things that traditionally make a TV show—what’s the technical term here—“good.” It’s haphazard. Boring subplots hang around too long. Romances come out of nowhere and fizzle without explanation. Resolutions to long-standing conflicts fall from the sky for no reason. Just like life, you could say. But then life, while infinitely bingeable, is no one’s idea of great TV.
Got all that? Now let’s talk about why the show is kind of wonderful anyway.
Wait, should I describe the story first? Do you care? Here are the basics. The old conductor of the New York Symphony is retiring. His successor is a hotshot young Mexican maestro who’s brilliantly talented but also flighty and egocentric. He’s famous for his hair. The old conductor, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell, and the young maestro, who’s played by Gael García Bernal, don’t get along, except that then they do start getting along and become best friends. There’s also a young oboist who’s worked her whole life to make it into the symphony, only she doesn’t make it in, but then she does, and for a while she’s the young maestro’s assistant, and they kiss occasionally, but not in a creepy way, and she’s played by Lola Kirke, and one night his grandmother literally reads some tea leaves and tells them they’re destined to have children together, but can you really trust tea leaves? Yes, obviously, but at the same time, who knows. In Season 3 the orchestra goes on strike and all the main characters wind up in Venice for some reason. That’s it; that’s the outline. Also, Monica Bellucci is in Venice.
What I like about all this, or more accurately what I love about all this—Mozart in the Jungle being a series it’s easier to love than to like—is that it has what seems to me a special quality of warmth. Some shows just get this atmospheric vibration. An episode can be slow and misshapen, a scene can be half off the rails, but because everyone involved seems so happy to be doing what they’re doing, the overall effect is one of strangely gentle pleasure. Mozart’s big plot scenes tend to be clumsy (“You can’t agree on a new contract? Then I shall lock you in the church until you do!!”). In between, though, there are lovely, small moments of human interaction, and these feel more real, more spontaneous, precisely because they’re suspended in such overdetermined plots.
There’s one moment in Season 2. A cellist, played by Saffron Burrows, has gotten a little loopy on pain pills and decided to sleep with one of her colleagues, not someone she’d normally be attracted to. Now she’s sober, and he’s making breakfast. He’s elated, acting ridiculous. You watch her watching him, and watch her figure out, in real time, whether she regrets what happened. She does and she doesn’t. But the combination of sadness, fondness, pity, and forgiveness that plays over her face is nuanced and adult and alive in a way that has nothing to do with plot development.
TV shows at this moment are so often interested in participating in a larger cultural discourse. Think of that episode of Girls with Matthew Rhys, the way it plugged into an existing conversation about male power and the nature of consent. Or the way Stranger Things, a dreadfully cynical and deadening show that’s trying to sell you back your own memories of wonder, has no existence outside the shared nostalgia it assumes you already possess. There’s something almost casually radical in the particularity of Mozart’s curiosity, its interest in what one specific person might do and feel, out of sight of all think pieces.
And this is particularly true because probably the show’s biggest preoccupation is with the nature of growing up—how to live, how to come to terms with responsibility, how to figure out who you are when you’re no longer sure what the rules are. All the characters struggle with this question in one form or another, even Malcolm McDowell, the older conductor, who’s 70-something but still prodded by an infantile ego. And Supriya was right: It is fascinating, in a prestige-TV landscape littered with self-imprisoned antiheroes, to watch characters falter hopefully toward the elusive goal of maturity. That process, like Amazon’s development model, runs through many bad decisions and false starts, and it tends to produce imperfectly structured arcs. It’s moving when it works.
Perhaps someday the world will grow to love the show the way I do. Perhaps even one other person will grow to love it, preferably in my time zone, and we will text each other. Either way, I’m excited to watch Season 4. It comes out in early December. To the many brilliant and talented people currently devoting their lives to creating Mozart in the Jungle, I say: I will be there for you, in my solitude. You can imagine me out here, waiting in the darkness to receive your work. It will be great. We won’t need a hashtag.