Romance on Television: Mozart in the Jungle

I want to recommend you consider watching a thing, a thing that I think has one of the most interesting romances on the small screen. Plus if you take me up on this, you’ll get to listen great classical music and consider artistic union-management politics. I have a lot of caveats as you’ll see below, but here’s the trailer for the forthcoming season.

Yes, I’m recommending Mozart in the Jungle, which is available on Amazon Prime. It’s a strange, quirky, and sometimes uneven comedy. As I’m certain my husband would want to interject, it’s not really funny, it gets some of the details wrong, and it traffics in some tropes and stereotypes that grate, but it’s still worth your time because it takes the clash between art and commerce seriously and it builds lovely human moments in along the way.

When it’s good, Mozart in the Jungle is different from everything else on television. And when it’s bad, at least it’s short. (Seriously, the episodes are less than half an hour each. You can pretty easily blow through a season in two nights and the extant three seasons in less than a week.)

Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of a fictional New York City orchestra. In the pilot episode, the board brings in a hot new conductor, roughly modeled on Gustavo Dudamel, to shake things up and in the process, deep schisms in the orchestra grow wider and the characters are forced to clarify their relationships to the institution and to music itself.

To be more granular, more romancelandia folks should take a look because of the show’s central relationship: a slow-burn romance between the new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a struggling oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirk).

On paper, Hailey sounds a bit like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s much younger than the rest of the ensemble, she’s pretty, and she drives Rodrigo’s emotional development/arc. But the character is specifically written and sympathetically portrayed. She has an inner life and her own desires, and so, for me, she transcends the trope.

Most interestingly, at least from my perspective, Hailey struggles with the question of whether she’s talented enough to achieve her dreams and as a result, as the show marches on, she tries to reimagine her life and eventually takes up conducting.

I don’t know what will happen with this storyline, but if anything, I find the show the compelling because of the female characters: Hailey; her roommate, Lizzie; her friend the cellist/union rep, Cynthia; Hailey’s rival, the first chair oboist Betty; and the president of the orchestra board, Gloria. I like the men, but they aren’t as central for me.

Since Hailey’s story is basically the one I keep writing over and over and over again, I’m smitten with the show, and I can’t wait to finally, finally see Hailey and Rodrigo together as a couple. I couldn’t be more excited for the show’s upcoming fourth season, so you should catch up so we can squee together.

That’s my spoiler-free pitch, but I’ll make a longer and more complicated one after the break.

(Here be spoilers, though I don’t think this a show that can be “spoiled” because it’s not plot driven, but YMMV.)

First, though, a note about why I might like the show to an unreasonable degree:

I play the piano–badly but with enthusiasm. This is a newish interest for me. When I was in high school many eons ago, I sang–proficiently but with enthusiasm. In fact when I was 17, I thought I would study music in college and become an opera singer. That dream didn’t come to pass because I fell in love with American literature but also because I realized outside the context of my high school, my talent was pedestrian and that the life of a starving artist sounded pretty damn awful. While I loved and love music, and classical music specifically, I was ultimately content to be a fan and an amateur.

What this means is for me is that Hailey’s struggle is entirely relatable. During the season 3 finale, when she finds out that she once again didn’t get a full-time position with the orchestra, Hailey screams at Rodrigo, “I can’t quit because I’m not some magical musical superstar shaman! I’m a fucking oboist, okay?” This line, her failure, her attempt to readjust her dreams: all of it was infinitely relatable for me. Therefore, I totally get that my love of the show might come out of my own history and issues.

More materially, because I don’t play a woodwind, I can’t critique how Hailey and anyone else on the show holds, pretends to play, or cleans their instruments (as others have).

Additionally, I think it’s utterly fair to point out the show’s lack of East Asian characters–and to specifically complain about Sharon, the obsequious assistant played by Jennifer Kim–which simply doesn’t match the diversity of most major orchestras. I’m hoping Raymond Lee will return as Arlen, the guy who beat Hailey out for the spot with the orchestra because the triangle player (Tanya, played by Ruibo Qian) and the occasional cameo by Lang Lang isn’t enough.

Which brings us to Rodrigo himself…and whoa. I adore Gael Garcia Bernal and have since his performance in Amores Perros. But I don’t know that this role, either in the writing or his approach to it, does him any favors. Almost every comedy eventually turns the characters into one-note caricatures. But the show is only three seasons in, and frankly, Rodrigo has grown/changed very little from the pilot.

The iconic Rodrigo is tortured with self-doubts but simultaneously enormously talented but because he’s an Artist, all of his flakiness, flaws, and vacillations are supposed to be forgiven. I wonder whether, in the wake of #MeToo, Rodrigo will have to develop in order to be a reasonable partner for the much grown Hailey who we have now.

A few more caveats: while Cynthia is bisexual, her character’s sexuality sometimes feels prurient simply because most other sex is played off screen or for laughs.

But one of my favorite moments in Mozart in the Jungle involves Cynthia (the absurdly beautiful Saffron Burrows) and a piccolo player (aka Union Bob) in the season one episode “Now, Fortissimo.” After finally facing her progressing tendinitis and taking a lot of drugs, Cynthia propositions a stunned and then grateful Bob. The next morning she comes out into the kitchen and finds Bob making breakfast–and singing. He’s **ecstatic** because of what happened, and she’s…processing. She doesn’t regret it; she’s just chewing. Realizing it was good, not good like she wants to be with Bob forever, but not a mistake.

There’s more about desire and comfort and the complications of sexual decision making in that scene than in entire other runs of television romantic comedies.

Related, the show does stories about middle-aged and older characters very, very well, including the romance between Gloria (Bernadette Peters) and Thomas (Malcolm McDowell); the rivalry and then friendship between Thomas and Rodrigo; and the rivalry then mentorship between Hailey and Betty.

The show also feels set in a specific and diverse New York City and it gets the world of would be and struggling artists right (at least as far as I can judge). The characters play several gigs a day, string together official and unofficial work, and still worry about money. They’re adjacent to, and sometimes in the beds of, the wealthy, but they still worry about making rent. Because I love nitty-gritty economic stuff, it’s worth emphasizing the union plot that starts at the end of season one, plays out mostly over season 2, and wraps up at the start of season 3 is terrific.

And so are the friendships, specifically those between the women. I’d forgotten that early in season 1, the vibe between Hailey and Lizzie is sometimes competitive. But midway through season 1, it settles down, and they feel like genuine friends and roommates.

Anyhow, if you do want to give show a chance, maybe consider starting with the season 1, episode 7: “You Go to My Head.” It’s set at a chic-chic Long Island fundraiser, and the characters are better established/realized than earlier on.

Taken all together, season two is the most consistently strong. The trouble with renegotiating the orchestra’s contract–which ultimately results in a lockout–means that the season two episodes frequently work both as a stand-alones and as continuities. The sojourn to Mexico in that season is gorgeous and illuminating. I love the Venice episodes in season 3 (which bring us lots of meta commentary not to mention Monica Bellucci as an opera diva), but the Mexico storyline is the best Rodrigo stuff of the show’s run thus far.

So…I can’t say this is an unqualified recommendation, but when everything on television can feel the same, I’m glad there’s Mozart in the Jungle.

ETA: I fixed a few typos after posting. Oops.

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