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Television John Doyle: The new frontier – sex and drugs and classical music

Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. That's so old.

A musician I know, someone who has worked in multiple genres, once told me that touring with a rock band was a lame and tame experience after witnessing the shenanigans in the world of classical music and opera. The hanky-panky, the tantrums, the egotism and the pharmaceuticals. Apparently, it's a real eye-opener. Scandalous, I tell you!

Mozart in the Jungle (now streaming on Shomi) takes us into that wild world. Based on the memoir of the same title by Blair Tindall, an oboist who played with the best, including the New York Philharmonic and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, it's a terrific series. It's less lurid than Tindall's book, which is blunt about jobs-for-sex and the casting-couch system, but still erotically charged while being humorous. There's a buoyancy to it that is absolutely as seductive as the music.

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It was made by Amazon Studios, which also made the fabulous Transparent, and the series's creators, writers and executive producers – Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Alex Timbers and Paul Weitz – bring a zest to it that, in the hierarchy of TV, puts it somewhere between HBO-quality material and network-type mass entertainment. Mind you, no network would touch this material, the classical-music setting being assumed as elitist and off-putting to a mass audience. Never mind. There are 10 half-hour episodes and it makes for a delicious binge.

The central character, at first, is Hailey (Lola Kirke), a young oboist trying to make a living in New York and hoping to make it into a great orchestra. One is the New York Symphony, where major drama is unfolding while Hailey is merely giving music lessons to a randy young boy more interested in her cleavage than his oboe.

At the symphony, a new maestro named Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) is taking over from the long-term boss, the imperious Thomas (Malcolm McDowell). There are ructions. Thomas is bitter. He's been forced out by the board of directors, headed by Gloria (Bernadette Peters). Rodrigo is young, sexy, European and a genius. He is also, it seems, intent on seducing every female within touching distance.

Meanwhile Hailey is befriended by Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), the much-acclaimed cellist in the symphony. It's an unequal relationship, of course. Hailey is looking for work, living cheaply and ambitious. Cynthia has bedded the best and is alert to all the melodramatic machinations inside the symphony. While we see Hailey partying with her fellow young strivers in a cramped apartment, we see Cynthia in a limousine and learn she didn't get there by only using her hands on her cello.

Eventually the focus is on Rodrigo, and Bernal is wonderful as the devilishly charismatic but disciplined musical genius. His takeover of an orchestra, a group of egomaniacs, depressives and insecure sociopaths, is ripe with flinty drama. There is nothing dumbed-down about this portrait of a classical-music institution. There is some scenery-chewing going on but it all makes sense in the context.

In Tindall's book there is a mighty cynicism about the powerful in the American classical-music world. Not so much the powerful musicians, but the very rich who can support and control orchestras and opera productions. Here there is more strung-out whimsy than cynicism and there is great affection for musicians who struggle but never make the big-time – affection that's real, even if the subject has seduced, bedded and betrayed many colleagues. It's just their way of surviving in the arena.

Mozart in the Jungle is an ungainly title for a delightful series. Rock 'n' roll has nothing on these artists for lust and lasciviousness. Bless them. Now, me, I'd like the frontier expanded to include a drama about opera.

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Also airing

The Following

(Fox, Bravo, 9 p.m.) is back for season three. Just how many times can tortured FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) battle the cult-leader killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy)? Well at least three times, obviously. As the series opens, Joe is behind bars again, Ryan is "in a good place" but is drawn back toward Joe as Joe's maniacal followers are unleashing their killing sprees again. Always solid entertainment, always just this side of gut-wrenching violence and ridiculousness, The Following can be bloody great entertainment. All times ET. Check local listings.

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