Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episodes of the week for December 4 through 10, 2016, are “Symphony of Red Tape” and “Not Yet Titled,” the sixth and seven episodes of Amazon comedy Mozart in the Jungle’s third season.
“Why am I still watching this show?” I asked a Vox colleague, as I plodded through the first half of the third season of Mozart in the Jungle.
It was, I suppose, a good question. My colleague is the only person I know, other than myself, to have made it through the first two seasons of the show.
She and I reminisced about the show’s finest episode — the seventh of the first season, which was an effervescent standalone short film set during a fundraiser at an opulent country estate. It had attained some of the buoyancy of a great European art comedy.
And though the show had always been, at the least, interesting, it had failed to ever reach that height again. It was, in many ways, an exemplar of peak TV. Why on earth would any network program a not-particularly-funny comedy about life in a New York City orchestra? Well, because there was money to burn and awards to be won, that’s why.
And yet in season three, even Mozart seemed a little befuddled by what to do next, spending the first half of its season on a tedious trip to Venice that seemed to exist mostly to spend a bunch of Amazon’s money. Season three, ultimately, is the show’s weakest yet, though still perversely watchable in spite of itself. And since “not great but very watchable” is this show’s sweet spot, fans will likely enjoy themselves.
And then I watched episodes six and seven, and I remembered just why I watch.
Mozart in the Jungle at least tries to play the episodic game
Many, many, many TV critics (including this one) have brought this up at this point, but one of the biggest problems with the binge-release model Netflix and Amazon prefer is that it tends to regard a full season as “one episode.” That leads to bloat, and to formless storytelling. Each hour of the show ends up feeling largely interchangeable.
Yet curiously, Mozart in the Jungle has never been as afflicted by this as other shows. While it’s ultimately pretty serialized, every single episode has some little core that it mostly revolves around, and some have nothing to do with the season’s storyline whatsoever.
Take the show going to Venice this season, for instance. Yes, it sometimes seemed like an excuse to burn a lot of Amazon’s cash, but it was also a chance to examine what might go into staging even a very small-scale opera (in this case, a one-night-only comeback concert for a reclusive diva). Did it work? Not really. But each episode built steadily to the performance in episode five.
Amusingly, this jaunt to Venice meant that the second-season cliffhanger — in which the orchestra went on strike and various characters were scattered to the winds — didn’t get resolved until episode six of season three, when chastened conductor Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) made his way back to New York and demanded, while officiating a christening, no less, that management and labor get their shit together and hammer out a deal. (Before then, the series offered periodic check-ins on what the striking musicians were up to.)
“Symphony of Red Tape,” season three’s sixth episode, ends up being more or less the platonic ideal of a “normal” Mozart in the Jungle episode: There’s a single story (the union negotiation), there are fun little things for every character to do, director Azazel Jacobs’s camera never stops roving among the various groups of players, and the show drinks in the New York atmosphere like it’s a first-time tourist.
When the two sides of the dispute come to a tentative agreement, they ring a bell in the church where the wedding is being held; outside, Rodrigo, perched on a bike and lazily drifting down a Manhattan byway, spreads his arms wide in triumph. It’s a lovely slice of New York life. These are the moments that keep me coming back to Mozart.
If you were to simply happen upon this episode while someone else was watching Mozart season three, you wouldn’t get all of the nuances, of course. But you might appreciate it for what it was — something loose and free and often fun, when it gets out of its own way. And then episode seven might convince you you were watching one of the most exciting shows on television. (You wouldn’t be.)
“Not Yet Titled” tries something new with the comedy mockumentary
There is no real reason for “Not Yet Titled” to exist. In the grand scheme of the show’s overall narrative, it’s a hiccup. But that hiccup also underscores everything the series tries to say about art and its necessity.
In the overall story of Mozart, yes, it’s necessary to show the first time the orchestra comes back together to perform after the strike. But beyond that, it’s a swooning attempt to make an argument not just for this fictional orchestra, or this TV show, or even classical music, but for the necessity of art in general. It feels like a one-episode rebuke of anybody who would shrug their shoulders at the show and wonder what’s so important about this particular milieu. “Maybe you don’t care about classical music,” the episode says, pushing its glasses up on its nose, “but surely you care about art!”
“Not Yet Titled” takes the form of a faux documentary — commonly called a mockumentary — which is directed by recurring character Bradford Sharpe (played by series co-creator Jason Schwartzman). Sharpe, a podcast host and classical music gadfly, has decided to make his very first documentary about the orchestra’s return to performing, their first show back at Rikers Island Prison, the famously brutal New York City correctional facility.
Sharpe turns out to be a surprisingly natural director for somebody making his first film. But he’s actually just a mask for the episode’s actual writer and director, Roman Coppola, another of the series’ co-creators and a filmmaker who’s a great mimic of a variety of styles and other films. (He was behind the first season country house episode, too.)
Coppola has clearly studied performance documentaries very closely, and this gives “Not Yet Titled” a loose spine: At first, the characters fret over their relationship to music, having been gone from it so long. Then they arrive to play and fret even more. And then they perform, realizing that the true purpose of their art does not lie in them, nor in their listeners, but somewhere in between — in the space between instrument and ear, where vibrations haven’t yet solidified into sound.
If that sounds pretentious, it is, I assure you, but in the best possible way. “Not Yet Titled” is a half-hour wallow in the idea that there are few things more interesting, more inspiring, and more necessary than great art. When Bradford goes to interview Rikers prisoners, they talk about how the music lifted them from their existence, if only for a moment, and that, in and of itself, made the concert worthwhile.
Now, of course, all of this loses a little something once you ponder that this is a fake documentary. Coppola and the Mozart team are stacking the deck in favor of artistry. These people and this orchestra are not real. This concert didn’t really happen as presented — though a version of it did happen, and the inmates interviewed are real. (Read more about the making of this episode at Paste.)
Still, it’s mostly an artful trick, a big wink at all of the ideas outlined above. Does that make it dishonest on some level? I don’t really know. I do know I enjoyed it in the moment, if only for its audacity.
The episodes that follow “Not Yet Titled” explore this idea in other ways. What about love? Is that more important than art? How about finding meaningful work? Is that more important than art? What about pursuing a personal passion? And on and on and on. (Tellingly, one of these later episodes was co-written by Susan Coyne, co-creator of the great Canadian drama Slings & Arrows, which is set at a Shakespearean theater company and pretty much perfected the “artistic endeavor as workplace dramedy” form Mozart still struggles with. She also wrote an earlier episode in the season.)
But even when Mozart clumsily engages with these questions, it at least remains secure in its answer: Art, it believes, is important precisely because it doesn’t need the artist. Long after the artists are dead and gone, if their work has any meaning, it will endure. It will belong not to them and not to us, but to time. And isn’t that a marvel? Isn’t that, ultimately, worth watching this silly little TV show for?
Mozart in the Jungle season three is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Correction: The ceremony Rodrigo officiates is a christening, not a wedding.