When critics write reviews, they often have no idea what other people think of the piece under discussion — until the responses start pouring in. Last year, when I saw the first seven episodes of “Mozart in the Jungle,” Amazon’s TV series inspired by Blair Tindall’s 2005 book, I thought it was so awful, so sophomoric and so inaccurate in its depiction of the classical music world that I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone would like it.
But people did like it, quite a lot — so many, in fact, that Amazon picked up the series for a second season of 10 episodes, released on Wednesday. And while I wasn’t altogether eager to watch any more of the show, I was curious to have a chance to revisit it and see whether it had gotten better.
“Mozart in the Jungle,” the series, is billed as a comedy. It adopts an over-the-top, almost magical-realism approach to the topic of classical music, a world in which conductors commune with Mozart and invent their programs on a whim at a few hours’ notice, the whole thing wrapped in a mantle of details awkwardly shoved into unrealistic, wooden dialogue. Yet even at its worst, Season One did have a certain narrative flow. Since the preview screener I had last year only had the first seven episodes, I went back to catch up on what I’d missed, and I did see that the characters started to take on life as the season neared its close. I still emerged feeling I’d binged on Cheetos: something that was easy to eat too much of, but not actually very enjoyable.
The show, however, got a vote of confidence from the public. And this success appears to have emboldened its creators, and calmed them down. Season Two is less frantic, less egregious in its deviations from reality, more confident in its characters and its subject, and generally more fun — for everyone. It opens with the conductor Rodrigo, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, at the Hollywood Bowl, where he is encouraged by a stage manager to strengthen his ties with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “You have to come here,” the stage manager says, with relish. “Save us, please. We hate our conductor.” The stage manager is in fact played by Gustavo Dudamel, the popular real-life music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on whom Rodrigo’s character is loosely, if tacitly, modeled.
This season is sprinkled with this kind of amusing insider moment. I don’t know if it counts as a spoiler to say that the bar/bowling alley scene in which the real-life Joshua Bell and Lang Lang play ping-pong, while Emanuel Ax earnestly works to improve his dexterity with an arcade game, goofy though it was, was also funny. (Yes, all these luminaries are playing themselves. Obviously a lot of people liked Season One more than I did.)
And having the venerable conductor Anton Coppola playing an elderly musician very much like himself, recounting memories of Toscanini to a rapt nerd for a classical-music podcast, is a lovely evocation of a particular arm of classical music’s past. It also gives some insight into the show’s possible genesis: Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, two of the show’s main co-creators, writers, and producers, are Coppola’s great-nephews.
Celebrity cameos alone aren’t enough to improve the show. They are, however, an indication of the turn that Season Two has taken: it’s still silly, but also often rather delectable. Having introduced us in Season One to Bernadette Peters as an uptight socialite board chairwoman who seems single-handedly to run the orchestra (silly), the series now lets her sing in Season Two, at an open mic night (silly, but delicious). Malcolm McDowell, as the conductor who was publicly ousted from the music directorship of the fictitious New York Symphony at the start of Season One, is now hanging around, picking up the reins of his former job as needed (silly), but he’s having so much fun playing a man out of control, abusing substances, messing up his relationships, and trying to reinvent himself as a composer, that he’s hard to resist.
Saffron Burrows is less plastic this season as the beautiful cellist, Cynthia, who keeps playing through physical pain and multiple romantic relationships with professional colleagues. And Bernal’s intensity helps keep credibility in the figure of a mercurial boy-child conductor, even when he’s talking to a bewigged reincarnation of Mozart, or being improbably rude to powerful donors. Now that all of the characters have been set in motion, however improbable their initial situations, the performances are good enough to help us past the suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, the show’s portrayal of the classical music world is far more recognizable as something approaching reality. Among the main plot points of Season Two — only the first six episodes were included on the preview screener — are the threat of a possible musicians’ strike and Rodrigo’s first international tour with the orchestra, which brings him back to his native Mexico. While the first season bore little relation to actual life in an orchestra, this season depicted the tour, in particular, with a spot-on juxtaposition of vignettes: the slow eager anticipation of a musician on her first tour (Hailey, played by Lola Kirke, an oboist and the show’s protagonist) yielding to a montage of vignettes of airplanes taking off and landing, musicians playing, instruments going in and out of cases, and one press conference after another, creating a blur of imagery that well evokes the whirl of an orchestra on the road. Certainly there are hard-to-swallow fictional embellishments. A plot line involving the concertmaster’s missing violin detours into a car chase through Mexico City, while another takes Rodrigo and Hailey on an AWOL excursion to Rodrigo’s home town. But unlike many of the inventions in Season One, they didn’t make me want to switch off my computer.
At a time when classical music is looking for ways to gain wider recognition in the broader culture, you could argue that the mere fact that someone put a lot of time and energy and money into making a TV series about the field is something to celebrate. But it’s even more valuable when the show is something you actually want to watch. “Mozart in the Jungle’s” second season, fluffy though it is, does meet that criterion. At least, this time it won’t take me a year, and an obligation to review, to watch the last four episodes to find out how it comes out.
“Mozart in the Jungle” begins streaming on Amazon on Dec. 30.