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Art & Architecture The Enthusiast: Mozart in the Jungle and the pleasures of low-stakes TV shows that are only so-so

Malcolm McDowell in Season 4, Ep. 5, of 'The Coach' aired Feb. 16, 2018.

Sarah Shatz

My most enjoyable hours spent in front of the television this past year have been watching Mozart in the Jungle, the recently cancelled Amazon Studios dramedy set behind the scenes at the fictional New York Symphony.

But don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it was a great show, nor would I recommend it to most people. It was merely okay. So-so, I’d say.

What an absolute joy.

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Let me explain: My television has started to seriously stress me out.

The Third Golden Age of Television, as it's been called, has been going on for so long now and has produced so many shows that critics and family and friends and online algorithms have told me are must-sees, that I now freeze up when trying to figure out what series to watch next.

The era of streaming services and on-demand has only made it that much more difficult to choose, as you’re not just dealing with the series currently on the air but almost all television that has ever been aired for all of human existence. Should I start I Love Lucy next – or Deadwood?

I don’t know how TV critics like John Doyle do it. A spreadsheet of shows that I’ve wanted to watch that I started a decade ago now has series on it that are already being revived or rebooted. Will I have to put Veronica Mars on there twice?

The Enthusiast: A must-read for every woman

If it were up to me, I would be living a cord-cutting existence in order to temper the tyranny of choice (and so that maybe I’d pick up a novel now and then), but my wife has to keep up on television for her living and so we have cable. Also, HBO On Demand. And Crave. Even Amazon Prime Video. We’ve got all them all.

For some, this would be an incredible dowry. Not me. It's just more pixelated panic for this guy.

Before I agree to join my wife on her journey with any given series, my first question is: How many episodes is it?

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This inquiry annoys her greatly, but I don’t want to be gripped by a great show that ran for eight, long seasons and then lose months of my free time binging it. I can easily get addicted.

Hannah Dunne in Season 4, ep. 401 of 'The Boyfriend', aired Feb. 16, 2018.

Sarah Shatz

Last fall, when Amazon Prime Video entered our life, I suggested that we watch Mozart in the Jungle because, at the time, there were only three seasons out there of 10 episodes lasting 26 to 30 minutes each. If it was good, no problem – and it threatened to be as I had read that the writer’s room included Susan Coyne. She co-created my favourite TV series of all time, Slings and Arrows, set behind the scenes at a Stratford-like theatre festival.

Mozart in the Jungle has similar aims as Slings and Arrows, but isn’t as solid in its execution. It stars Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal as a young maverick conductor named Rodrigo (inspired by Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel) who takes over the staid New York Symphony – and also embarks on an on-and-off romance with a young oboist named Hailey (played by Lola Kirke).

Bernal’s comedic performance is the only thing that remains truly exceptional throughout the series.

He gets the wacky-charismatic tone right off the bat, while others completely miss the mark in the first uneven season – especially Malcolm McDowell as the conductor emeritus who struggles with what to do with his life after handing his baton over to Rodrigo. (He gets better later on, thankfully, as he remains in the main cast throughout.)

Mozart in the Jungle has some entertaining secondary characters, depicts working artists in a fun but not too glamorous way and has some smart things to say about the perils and paradoxes of working in an institution devoted to art.

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And, eventually, it does the best job I’ve ever seen at seriously (but never overly soberly) examining the question of sex and romance in an artistic workplace where passion must be expressed. It satisfied my hunger for a nuanced exploration of the subject that, understandably, has been hard to find since #MeToo began.

The relationship between Rodrigo and Hailey, which seems a little clichéd at first, becomes very complex. It may not be depicted as wrong for a male conductor and a younger female oboist to date – but Mozart in the Jungle is good at showing how it leads to career complications that primarily affect one party.

In the end, the series is kind to its charismatic eccentric hero Rodrigo – without ignoring the misogyny in society that rewards men for being like that, while punishing women artists for being ambitious or taking risks.

Still, many of the episodes feel like awkward excerpts of a better hour-long show. It’s at its best when it goes on detours out of New York whether to gorgeously shot Venice (where Monica Bellucci plays an Italian soprano for a three-episode arc) or North Carolina (where we meet Hailey’s overly critical father as part of one of the more touching arcs).

For me, however, the inconsistency of the show is part of what I enjoyed about it. I never felt the pressure to binge. I watched a few episodes here or there. I went on holiday and then forgot about it. When I remembered a couple of months later, I picked it up again.

(L-R) Gael Garcia Bernal, Lola Kirke in 'If I Was an Elf, I Would Tell You' (Season 4, Episode 2, aired Feb. 16, 2018).

Sarah Shatz

It didn’t control my life in any way, the way, for instance, The Americans did.

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The stakes were always low. For most of Season 2 and Season 3, the show’s plot revolves around contract negotiations between the orchestra and the board.

Will the orchestra strike? Will management lock the players out? I never really cared all that much one way or another. It was incredible.

Now there are a lot of bad televisions series out there, it’s true – and many highly recommended prestige shows that have failed to hook me whatsoever. (I was delighted to watch one episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and immediately despise it.)

What’s much harder to find is a show such as Mozart in the Jungle that was always good enough for me to look forward to watching another episode, but not good enough to binge.

If there were another season coming, I’d definitely watch it – but I haven’t signed the petition to un-cancel the show.

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