Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
In 2014, a time when streaming had yet to take over the world (House of Cards had only debuted on Netflix the year prior), Amazon Prime Video released the first season of Transparent, Joey Soloway’s star-studded dramedy about a family adjusting to their parent coming out as a transgender woman. It went on to quickly become a critical success and awards darling throughout its run, lasting five seasons and a final musical installment. At the same time of Transparent’s release, a charming little show with a wildly bizarre and off-putting title also premiered on Prime Video, but was met with much less attention, slowly developing a more niche audience over time. This obscure show is Mozart in the Jungle, a quirky four season comedy created by Roman Coppola, Alex Timbers, Paul Weitz, and Jason Schwartzman.
Loosely based on former New York Philharmonic oboist Blair Tindall’s 2006 tell-all memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, the series follows Rodrigo de Souza (Gael García Bernal), a young Mexican conductor who is brought in to revamp the fictional New York Symphony, which is struggling with an aging audience and union tensions in the months prior to its season-opening performance. There, he meets aspiring oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), who starts out as his assistant but works her way up the ladder after striking up a bond with him that blossoms over the course of the show. The rest of the cast that makes up Mozart in the Jungle’s dysfunctional musical family includes Saffron Burrows as Cynthia, the symphony’s bisxual cellist who serves as a mentor for Hailey; Broadway icon Bernadette Peters’ Gloria, the president of the symphony’s board of directors; and Malcolm McDowell’s Thomas Pembridge, the narcissistic aging conductor who gets replaced by Rodrigo. It’s also stuffed with guest appearances, from violinist Joshua Bell to Monica Bellucci’s five-episode run as Alessandra, a fierce Italian opera singer struggling to figure out her path as she gets older.
At first, Rodrigo appears to be nothing more than an exaggerated depiction of a manic pixie dream artist: an enfant terrible, he’s eccentric, whimsical, and utterly unpredictable. Loosely modeled after renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Rodrigo is known for his silly personality, trademark curly hair, hipster vibes, and the overall youthfulness he brings to music. But Bernal’s performance, which remains a highlight of the series, brings depth to a character who might have otherwise slipped into cheesy parody. Despite the constant struggle of having to live up to massively high expectations, Rodrigo wants nothing more than to inspire others and help his orchestra be the best they can possibly be. With Hailey, his idealistic tendencies allow him see potential in her ability to play the oboe professionally, so he takes a chance on her despite there being other candidates more qualified (which also leads to a slow-burn relationship between the pair).
Occasionally, Mozart in the Jungle leans into surrealism. Rodrigo sometimes hallucinates conversations with famous composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, who guide him through the music he’s composing and help him make important decisions. Other times, fantasy sequences capture Rodrigo and Hailey talking to other historically influential musical figures. In the fourth season, when Hailey comes into her own after deciding to pursue a career as a conductor, she gets visited by female composers of the past, including the likes of Maria Anna Mozart and Isabella Leonarda, who spent their careers being overlooked in a male-dominated field. Despite these dips into dream-like situations that take you out of reality, Mozart in the Jungle is a show deeply committed to making the trials and tribulations of a hectic music world feel authentic, even if its end result is a much more dramatized interpretation. It doesn’t shy away from showing the not-so-glamorous parts of the musicians’ lives, such as when they have to fight for living wages or deal with career-threatening injuries, and it also brings attention to the hurdles women must overcome in order to be recognized for their work that is often overshadowed by men.
Sometimes, the show moves out of New York City, and ventures to culturally rich parts of the world like Venice, Havana, Mexico City, and Tokyo, focusing on the mundane parts of these bustling cities and highlighting their musical and cultural traditions. It’s in these moments that the characters get the opportunity to gain new experiences that allow them to grow and mature, both as people and as musicians. When taking the symphony to Mexico City, Rodrigo not only gets to perform in his hometown, but also gets the chance to reconnect with his roots. The show puts effort into its characters; they never feel underdeveloped and are always treated like humans. Most importantly, they all make mistakes but are given the chance to learn from them, finding both power and grace in redemption.
Music is a powerful force, with the ability to express one’s deepest thoughts and feelings and conjure up emotions we weren’t even aware of. Mozart in the Jungle understands this and deeply cares about music as an art form (which shouldn’t be a surprise, since Schwartzman is a musician himself). Music, in this case classical music, is a principal character in the series as opposed to a secondary device whose sole purpose is to serve as a basis for the narratives and to further other plot points. Without the importance placed on music itself, Mozart in the Jungle wouldn’t work. Here, music has the capacity to unite people: the members of the orchestra are all bound by their shared affection for music, and everyone involved in the ensemble is genuinely happy to be there doing what they’re deeply passionate about, even though it doesn’t have the best financial outcome for many of them.
In the third season’s bold seventh episode “Not Yet Titled,” which was shot in the style of a documentary by fictional music enthusiast and podcaster Bradford Sharpe (played by Schwartzman), the orchestra performs a live—and I actually mean live, as it was filmed on location in one take—concert of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” at Rikers Island for the men of the Eric M. Taylor Center. The episode ends with interviews from actual inmates about their reaction to the music and performance, with one man saying it brought him peace and tranquility. Not only was this a creative risk taken by Coppola, but it’s a standout episode that showcases music’s capacity to move us, even if it’s only for a few moments.
Mozart in the Jungle didn’t go completely unnoticed while it was airing—it won two Golden Globes in 2016 (one for Best Television Comedy, and one where Bernal took home the award for Best Actor in a Comedy), and scored a few Emmys. Even so, it remained the type of show people might hear about but would still question its existence, because it was too often buried under all of the beloved prestige comedies that were dominating conversations around the same time, like Transparent, Girls, and Masters of None. Even now, it continues to fly under the radar, and it’s rare to interact with people who have seen it in its entirety, let alone even heard of it.
Mozart in the Jungle was far from perfect; it had its fair share of lows, such as disjointed plot lines that were left unexplained or cliches it sometimes played into, but a show doesn’t need to be flawless to be enjoyable. Some shows are meant to be the ultimate TV comfort food, the type of low-stakes series you can turn to in times of darkness because of the warm, comforting atmosphere they envelop you into. Mozart in the Jungle is just that, and that’s what makes it such a great gem of a series that deserves to be remembered.
Watch on Amazon Prime Video
Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter @jihanebousfiha__.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.