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Mozart in the Jungle season 2 review: 5 shows trapped inside of a hugely messy, highly entertaining one

This is either a magic realist series that features curses or a dark show about the apocalypse's arrival. Or something else!

Gael García Bernal plays the visionary, possibly off-his-rocker conductor Rodrigo in Mozart in the Jungle.
Gael García Bernal plays the visionary, possibly off-his-rocker conductor Rodrigo in Mozart in the Jungle.
Amazon Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

What a strange show Mozart in the Jungle is! Amazon's comedy set behind the scenes of a symphony orchestra will be a loving, transcendent look at the process of creating art in one scene, then be undone by strained attempts at goofy comedy in the next. It'll drop its story entirely for affecting, plotless rambles, then immediately try to cram a bunch of plot into everything. It's a magical realist show where people can be cursed — except when it's a somewhat realistic portrayal of labor negotiations.



I honestly don't know if I like Mozart in the Jungle or can't stand it, but I'm glad it exists. It's like Peak TV defined by one show. How many people are out there watching an obviously high-budget half-hour comedy about an orchestra? There have to be at least a few dozen, right? If there's a market, no matter how small, there's a show, no matter how hopelessly confused.

Let's take a look at the five different shows Mozart in the Jungle is, and which ones work better than the others.

1) A magical realist show about a kooky conductor and the musicians who have to put up with him

Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell star in Mozart in the Jungle.
Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal, left) and Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) are conductors, new and old, for the show's symphony.
Amazon Studios

Back in season one, I wasn't entirely on board with Gael García Bernal's occasionally tossed-off performance as Rodrigo, the maestro conducting the orchestra. Bernal would go from seeming deeply in tune with the show's central tone to seeming as if he would rather be anywhere else.

But after watching season two, I finally get it: Bernal is the perfect embodiment of this Mozart in the Jungle's whimsical relationship with reality. He sometimes seems as if he'd rather be doing other things because Rodrigo is like a Macy's parade balloon version of himself, drifting along through his life and occasionally bumping into other people, but never quite connecting to them. If anything is tethering Rodrigo to reality, it's the people holding onto the strings far below, the ones that keep him from floating off into space.

This becomes all the more apparent in season two, when Rodrigo is briefly — and apparently quite seriously — cursed, so that he can't hear music properly and fears his life as a conductor is over. Mozart in the Jungle has always suffered from simply assuming that we'll believe Rodrigo is a genius, because it tells us he is. As it turns out, depicting why a genius conductor is so good is rather difficult. But season two takes us inside Rodrigo's head — both when he's living within the music and when it seems to have abandoned him — and that makes all the difference.

This version of the show is by far my favorite. It will leave behind the main plot to take long strolls through rural Mexico. It will introduce the ghosts of Mozart and Beethoven to argue at length with Rodrigo. And it will dance around the notion that everything happening to Rodrigo is written in the stars, as when Rodrigo's grandmother discovers that he and female lead Hailey (Lola Kirke) are destined to be together by reading her tea leaves — as opposed to checking the show's credits and realizing they're the two main characters.

Occasionally, it seems as if this version of the show is being mildly exploitative of Rodrigo's Latin-American roots, in order to introduce literal magic and the like. But there's something so offhandedly charming about it that I can't care too much. If more of the show were like this, I would like this show a whole lot more.

2) A "goofy" comedy about God knows what

Mozart in the Jungle is at its best when it's being whimsical. It's at its worst when it's trying to force laughs, by playing out, say, wacky scenarios with former Maestro Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell), a character who probably shouldn't be part of the show anymore. Apparently nobody has the heart to write McDowell out.

In general, whenever Mozart in the Jungle shows a character in a silly outfit or depicts Rodrigo controlling a virtual reality version of himself, you can feel safe in going to get a snack or something. This brand of comedy doesn't wear well with the rest of the show, and it usually comes off as trying too hard.

I'm not precisely sure why this is. The series' crazy blend of tones generally adds up to something bigger than any individual part — hey, almost like an orchestra! — but in the comedic moments, the show can often feel dire.

3) A swooning romance about life and love in the big city

Lola Kirke and Gael Garcia Bernal star in Mozart in the Jungle.
Hailey (Lola Kirke) and Rodrigo go on a Mexican side trip.
Amazon Studios

I don't really buy that Rodrigo and Hailey are destined to be together just because they're the two leads, even if Kirke and Bernal have pretty good chemistry. (Bernal, it should be said, could have chemistry with a log.) Nor do I quite understand why so much of season two was given over to tales of Hailey's roommate's relationship with podcaster Bradford Sharpe, but for the fact that Sharpe is played by co-creator Jason Schwartzman.

But I like the way these budding romances underline another aspect of the show that works much better: its utter romanticism of the idea of trying to make it as an artist in the big city. Mozart in the Jungle's version of the Big Apple is essentially the one depicted in the song "New York, New York," bulging with possibility and waiting with open arms to take in every wannabe artist who happens to wander by.

At its best, Mozart finds a way to have this cake and eat it too — by showing all of the ways New York falls short of that ideal. Which leads me to my next point.

4) A surprisingly serious drama about class conflict

At the center of season two is a battle for the future of the orchestra, one that takes place among the sorta rich who head up the board (represented by Bernadette Peters's Gloria), the very rich who'd love to take it over, and the workaday folks who are just hoping to put their kids through college by playing in it. Much of the back half of the season revolves around the question of whether the orchestra members will strike, and the show pulls off more of this than you might expect.

The series' plotting is often herky-jerky — you can tell the show's writers and directors would rather do a plotless ramble but feel compelled to offer something to string the episodes together. However, things usually get better when the series leaves the beaten trail far behind, as in the episode that darts off into rural Mexico.

And there's something about the season finale, when all of the pieces of the plot snap into place, that feels like the ideal version of what Mozart in the Jungle could be. Sometimes, the best art happens by accident, as this show has always argued, and when it takes the long way around to making its central plot for the whole season click at the very last moment, it's hard to argue with that point.

5) A dark series about an approaching apocalypse

Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle.
Everything is going to fall apart someday, Rodrigo.
Amazon Studios

Somewhere near the heart of Mozart in the Jungle is the idea that this symphony might not always exist, that there will come a day when funding for the fine arts in the US just dries up, because there's nobody left who's interested in it. The characters face their own version of the crisis squeezing so many other industries, where a whole generation who grew up doing things differently is coming onto the scene, and they don't give a damn about, say, preserving the legacy of classical music.

Frustratingly, Mozart usually darts away from this message whenever it comes up. The day is always saved, at the last moment, by improbable events. That goes along with the magical realist and romantic sides of the show's personality.

But every so often, I'd like to see the show dig a little more deeply into the idea that someone like Hailey — a 26-year-old who's dreamed of performing for the symphony her whole life — just happens to be part of a generation that could completely take or leave the thing she's so passionate about. In the end, maybe Mozart's odd, tonal mishmash comes from how it knows this darkness is right near its core, but still desperately wants to believe the better angels will win the day.

And maybe that's true. It's hard not to believe in the vision it's peddling in the season two finale, when Rodrigo takes the orchestra — now on strike — out into the middle of Central Park for an impromptu performance for the public, one that won't be held behind closed doors, only for the very rich. In moments like this, Mozart in the Jungle raises so high above itself that it feels as if it might soar into the clouds. And then, inevitably, it comes thudding back down to earth. But why not watch for those moments when, against all odds, it seems to defy gravity?

The complete second season of Mozart in the Jungle is streaming on Amazon Prime.