What the Hell Is Mozart in the Jungle? Two Confused Fans Work It Out

Madeleine Davies and Kate Dries

Mozart in the Jungle is an Amazon series about life in a professional orchestra. It just entered its second season, has garnered several awards, and still has us terribly confused.

Join Madeleine Davies and Kate Dries as we sort out our feelings on a show that both of us watch and neither of us get.


Madeleine Davies: Last night at the 2016 Golden Globes, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle won Best Television Series-Musical or Comedy and the show’s lead actor Gael García Bernal won Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series-Musical or Comedy. These victories elicited two responses from the American public:

  1. “That Gael is one tiny, smokin’ hot babe.”
  2. “What the hell is Mozart in the Jungle?”

(It was also nominated at the 2015 Emmys and people were just as confused then.)

Earlier last week, I mentioned to you, Kate, that I had spent the entire weekend binge-watching all two seasons of Mozart in the Jungle. I also said that I didn’t think I liked it, but—for an undefinable reason—felt compelled to keep watching. Not heeding my warning, you proceeded to binge-watch all the episodes in your own downtime. What did you think?


Kate Dries: Well, a point of clarification: I have not binge-watched all of them, but frankly, it’s only a matter of time before I do. I went to a friend’s house Saturday afternoon and she suggested we watch the Season 2 premiere and a subsequent episode. Despite spending most of that total hour going “Huh?” I went home and watched five more, starting at the beginning of season one. I have a few theories about why, but none of them really stand alone.

  1. It’s only half an hour long, so that’s easy to dig into
  2. It seems like it’d be a show where everyone is stabbing each other in the back, but in actuality (because it’s produced by Jason Schwartzman, giving it a very Bored to Death vibe) everyone is pretty decent to one another and just wants to play some classical music and be happy?
  3. The cast is sort of mesmerizingly quirky
  4. Bernadette Peters has stunning cleavage and amazing hair
  5. Continue onwards for approximately five bullet points, all of them minute details that are hardly enough of a reason for a show to win numerous awards

MD: You see, I wasn’t aware of who Lola Kirke was, so I kept getting frustrated in this they think they can cast someone who looks exactly like Jemima Kirke, not say anything, and get away with it? way. But then I googled the cast, found out that Lola was Jemima’s sister, and felt very dumb, indeed. (I should have felt dumb earlier because Jemima Kirke, believe it or not, does not own her face shape.)

I will watch basically any drama about the fine arts. I even watched Starz’s Flesh and Bone up until the episode where someone takes a shit on a character’s pillow and I finally realized, “Too much.” But the thing with Mozart is that all of the drama—realistic to the symphony world—revolves around union disputes and keeping the New York Symphony Orchestra relevant to young audiences. (Note: the New York Symphony Orchestra of the show is fictional, but the series is loosely based on Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name.) So, as that relates to your second point, it all feels very low stakes—even as Gael García Bernal (as the cool, young conductor Rodrigo) is brought in to replace the more stuffy and conservative Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell).


Here’s the real rub, though: The writing is kind of... terrible? Mozart’s pilot features a young oboist going to a cool orchestra party (in her own apartment) where she plays a classical music version of spin the bottle and all of the guests are just so. fucking, psyched. that she’s playing Bach. In a later episode, Bernadette Peters makes a joke about not understanding social media, saying that something is so exciting that it “even makes me want to twerp out an Instapic!” The moment was beautiful and I laughed a long time, but for none of the right reasons.


KD: Yeah it’s like the show can’t figure out if it’s a comedy or a drama or… what. Sometimes Rodrigo is seen talking to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (briefly played by Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s Santino Fontana)—you know, the composer who died a long time ago and from whom the show gets its name—which means all of a sudden he’s speaking to this dude dressed in period garb who no one else can see.

Mozart in the Jungle is also, at the point that I’ve seen, trying to amp up this supposed to chemistry between Lola Kirke’s character Hailey (who plays Rodrigo’s assistant) and Rodrigo, which I just do not buy. Rodrigo’s “thing” is that he’s super erratic and while I guess other people might find him sexy, the hair (regardless of its styling) is just too much for me.


Maybe the issue is that my brain can’t place what the show is trying to explore exactly, because it’s really all over the place in its tone. (Like Rodrigo! Symbolism!) Sometimes it seems like it’s poking fun at itself, other times it seems like it’s trying to present the artistic world as full of kooky weirdos by beating you over the head with their kooky weirdness.


But then other times I appreciate the fact that the percussionist in the orchestra is an aging stoner dealing drugs to all his colleagues, or the fact that most of the orchestra doesn’t make much money, so a few of them supplement their income by playing in the orchestra of Rock of Ages, which is (according to the show) a decidedly unglamorous and relatively easy gig. I just don’t know! (But I clearly know enough to keep watching, a move that is made easy by the fact that it’s all available on Amazon streaming.)

MD: I definitely get the appeal of Rodrigo, even with the hair. Gael García Bernal, I think, is very good in the role, bringing to it a very fun mix of weighty genius and childlike enthusiasm. The mix of comedy and drama doesn’t bother me, either. Maybe what makes me feel so uneasy about it is that it’s just so hokey. I’m really surprised that it’s getting so much positive critical attention! Then again, I played episode after episode, so there must be something special about it. (Or not. I mean, I’m also binge-watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Season 2 right now, so there’s no accounting for taste.)


How do you feel about Mozart in the Jungle in comparison to the other TV shows (musical or comedy) that it was nominated against at the Globes? I couldn’t believe that it beat Veep and Transparent, two series that I unequivocally find great.

KD: Maybe that’s what’s special about it to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and others—that it’s hokey and so hard to predict. That being said, it is wildly inconsistent, and in no way should have won, especially against Veep (I haven’t watched Transparent, but assume I would like it). It also beat out Casual, which I love, but frankly, Bernal winning over Rob Lowe seems alright by me.


MD: We should all beat Rob Lowe.

KD: I guess in conclusion: Mozart in the Jungle is pretty strange, and not always in a good way, but if you have Amazon Prime you can roll through two seasons of it in a day so why not?


MD: I’m just so happy that the Coppolas are finally getting some opportunities to direct.

Contact the author at madeleine@jezebel.com.

Image via Mozart in the Jungle/Amazon.

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