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‘Mozart in the Jungle’ could be Amazon’s answer to Netflix’s success

Conductor Rodrigo Leads an Outdoor Rehearsal

Mozart in the Jungle proves Amazon can deliver a commercial hit webseries.

There are moments in Amazon’s new original webseries, Mozart in the Jungle, when you think you are witnessing yet another great HBO comedy/drama.

Attempting to shake things up and create a more powerful harmony among its players, maverick conductor Rodrigo takes the New York Symphony on a field trip. Nestled between two pre-war buildings in lower Manhattan, the musicians make their way through a hole in a chain-link fence and take their places. As the scene evolves, these talented players come to realize they are part of something extraordinary. A neighborhood crowd begins to form, and a classical performance turns into something magical—a celebration of life and community. Food, dance, and impromptu jam sessions break out, all captured with a visual elegance and pacing rarely found in TV delivered in any medium.

And then New York’s finest come to bring the joy to a halt. Glee turns to despair when a defiant Rodrigo stumbles into a faceplant resulting in a broken nose.

Mozart in the Jungle is Amazon’s breakthrough webseries. While Transparent is a brilliant show, given its controversial plot line, its appeal and commercial  acceptance will never be a wide as this video verison of Blair Tindall’s novel Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music. In her book, Tindall, an oboe virtuoso, chronicled her years performing with the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. Her own stormy career—which included a brief and troubled marriage to Bill Nye the Science Guy—provides a superb foundation for the 10 episodes released in time for holiday binge viewing.

There are many plot threads carefully woven together, and while each storyline doesn’t soar, enough of them work to yield a pleasing—albeit somewhat predictable—conclusion. It also leaves enough room for further installments, should Amazon wisely decide to ride this winner into future seasons.

At the center of the show is Hailey (Lola Kirke), an oboist from North Carolina who comes to New York to seek a payoff for her years of tortuous performance and personal sacrifice. Early in the pilot, she encounters Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a world-wise cellist who mentors her into a tumultuous path of unexpected success and predictable failure. As we zoom into Hailey’s world, we are taken into the inner sanctum of this dusty New York musical institution. The powers that be (including a radiant Bernadette Peters) replace aging conductor Malcolm McDowell with bad boy Gael García Bernal. (There is a bit of a continuity issue related to Bernal’s heritage: At different times he is from Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. Truthfully, such a trivial error is irrelevant and will soar past most viewers.)

As with many ambitious attempts of bringing new content to the smaller screens, Mozart in the Jungle has its weaker moments. Episode 8, featuring Wallace Shawn as a troubled pianist who insists on helping Rodrigo explore his inner self, just does not work. The same goes for the forced interaction between Rodrigo and his estranged wife Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder) which can border on cringeworthy from time to time. Some of the acting in the supporting roles—such as Hannah Dunne as Hailey’s friend/roommate Lizzie—is not up to the standard set by the show’s leads.

On the other hand, realistic and smooth dialogue and a powerful group of veteran character actors, including Mark Blum as Union Bob and Debra Monk as the fragile, headstrong first oboist—provide strong support. For a seriocomedy flourish, John Miller turns in a strong performance as Dee Dee, percussionist and resident Dr. Feelgood. Remembered by most as PC in the Mac-PC TV commercials, actor/comedian John Hodgman is excellent as a blue blood who tries to score oboe lessons from Hailey when he is really after her heart.

Mozart in the Jungle is a family affair with cousins Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as co-creators. Schwartzman, a well-respected actor who leans toward less-conventional projects, has a small role as a self-impressing podcaster specializing in dishing the dirt surrounding the classical music scene. Paul Weitz, best known for directing the film About a Boy, is listed as executive producer but takes a turn as director and writer for a number of the episodes. The number of executive producers, producers, co-producers, and such resembles a Kickstarter project where titles are handed out in exchange for four-figure contributions.

With a commercial success on its hands, the ball is in Amazon’s court. Can Bezos and company replicate Mozart in the Jungle and give Netflix a run for its money, or is this webseries a one-hit wonder?

Screengrab via Amazon Studios

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.