It’s remarkable how the right set of actors can take a sad script and make it better.
“Mozart in the Jungle,” a new 10-episode series now available on Amazon Prime, is stock nighttime-soap material set in the backstage world of classical music. About an aspiring oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirke) who gets swept up in the complicated romantic and professional dramas of the New York Symphony, the characters and the plotlines offer almost no surprises. They are generic and much too “Smash”-ish.
Here’s the outline of the story, which is based on Blair Tindall’s memoir, “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music,” and executive produced by Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman: Hailey is an innocent, but she is more than skilled with her instrument. Indeed, she plays with a quality more rare than skill: Feeling. Her dream is to perform with the New York Symphony, which means she gets to audition for it before you can say Yo-Yo Ma. She also meets cute with a handsome, ambitious dancer named Alex (Peter Vack), which means she coincidentally runs into him that night at a party before you can say Fred Astaire.
Because lazy script.
Meanwhile, the wealthy leadership of the orchestra is in flux, with the vain maestro Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) getting pushed out by the head of the board, Gloria (Bernadette Peters), in favor of the flashier, younger Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal). Rodrigo is a rock star conductor, with women throwing themselves at him and critics swooning about him. Backs are stabbed, sex is had, curses are muttered, and rivalries are begun. It’s very snakes on a plane.
And yet, and yet, it is enormous fun watching Bernal steal the show. The actor, currently starring in Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater,” makes Rodrigo into a thoroughly modern, market-friendly music celebrity who just happens to have the soul of an old-time poet. Despite all of the buzz around him, despite his diva tendencies and one-name fame, Rodrigo is a lovely guy — a servant of great music who likes to go out and play chess with strangers in the park. Rodrigo has a haughty, cold response to the orchestra’s marketing guru, who suggests an ad campaign tethered to the phrase “Hear the Hair” — but we quickly learn that that’s because he knows his long, curly, heavy-metal locks have become a career crutch for him. He’s appealingly self-aware, even while he’s larger-than-life.
McDowell and Peters, too, spin the clichés for all they’re worth. McDowell doesn’t make Thomas into an evil power monger, which would be the networky way to go. He shows us how Thomas is also struggling with the aging process, as well as with his lifelong insecurities. And Peters, who was also in “Smash,” works a number of lines in an amusingly theatrical fashion; she’s formidable and also kind of fickle. Saffron Burrows is a welcome addition as a maternal cellist named Cynthia who takes Hailey under her wing. In a nice flourish, Cynthia moonlights in a Broadway production of a Styx jukebox musical.
As Hailey, the obligatory newbie, Kirke (sister of Jemima Kirke, Jessa on “Girls”) is a bit flat, as are many of the performances by those playing Hailey’s contemporaries. But as the story progresses, Kirke begins to shine a bit as she develops meaningful friendships with Cynthia and Rodrigo. Hailey does have something to offer, beyond her playing, and it’s pleasing to discover that. A number of guest appearances also punch up the show, notably Schwartzman as a podcaster named B. Sharp.
Another plus: Each episode is a half-hour long. Like Amazon’s breakthrough hit, “Transparent,” and like a number of other comedy-drama hybrids including “Nurse Jackie,” “Mozart in the Jungle” benefits from the lack of filler. The half-hours fly by, which makes for perfect binging — the goal, to some extent, of Amazon’s decision to drop full seasons all at once. They want us to get hooked fast, with no down time in between episodes to decide to bow out.