Amazon is in pilot season again, floating their second batch of first episodes and taking feedback from viewers before deciding which to greenlight. The war for original series supremacy has gotten more heated with the recent Emmy noms and win for Netflix, and with Bezos’ crew already aiming for world domination in so many other ways, this would be a logical step. This batch of ten pilots, however (with five for kids), is a significant step up from those launched last April, and Amazon seems to be finding their sea legs.
For folks like us, the show that stands out is Mozart in the Jungle, a star-studded drama based on Blair Tindall‘s controversial 2005 memoir of the same name. The book garnered attention for its focus on the salacious side of New York’s classical world, including plenty of sex, drugs, hubris and greed. But as sensational as the book’s tunnel vision may be, the real differences between the lives of glitzy soloists and the lowly pit dogs was relatively new territory for laypeople, and unearthed some sad truths about the business. For all the ways our “industry” is different, classical music has evils, foibles and politics just like the rest of the world, and Tindall’s book brought that to light in all its full-color glory.
The TV adaptation spotlights several dimensional (if archetypal) characters that will seem familiar: the great Malcolm Macdowell is the outgoing conductor of the fictitious New York Symphony, chafing that his legacy is being trampled by his successor. The incoming Wunderkind ‘Rodrigo’ is played by a very sexy Gael Garcia Bernal, in an obvious but slimier parody of we-know-who. (Apparently IMDB is showing an older version of a few of the character names, including listing Bernal’s role as “Gustavo”.) The lovely and provocative Saffron Burrows is Cynthia, a vixen cellist who is jaded but not yet world-weary, and takes a liking to young Hailey (Lola Kirke), a sweet and brilliant oboist from North Carolina, the requisite ingenue and the character based on the book’s author. Her wide-eyed dreams serve as a refreshing counterpoint to the guile that seems to surround her.
Familiar faces abound: Bernadette Peters is note-perfect in a small role as the orchestra’s board chair. There are also some fun cameos, including a performance early-on by violinist Joshua Bell and an amusing self-parody by ‘Idol’ Constantine Maroulis.
As foretold in the book’s title, sex, drugs and intrigue lurk in every corner, reminding us, in one way, of the differences in lifestyle between some sections of the classical community: the moment when wind player Hailey refuses a toke with “smoke is the enemy” brought back some memories, and the hard-drinking late-night parties are less of an option for singers, although plenty of vocalists certainly partake from time to time. The truth is, most classical performers cease to dwell in this kind of drama, or certainly this level of partying, at least once they’re a few years out of school. But the widespread evidence of relatively normal lives hasn’t stopped shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife from amping up the soap factor and cramming more titillation into each episode portraying life in the medical and legal worlds. In any field, storylines are plentiful, and this particular team of producers should have a better chance than most of making it work.
The series is directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company), and created by power cousins Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers, a relative newcomer. This impressive team leaves their dynamic marks on the screen and the dialogue, giving the half-hour pilot the dramatic feel of a one-hour drama. Where the book lacked depth, this team has the potential to make the classical world as riveting as the hospitals and law offices of other successful series, and could help to dispel classical’s stuffy image more than a bit. We’ll have to see how they do, if they get another shot.
Time is short
The new pilots have been available for viewing for about a month already, so do take a look asap, and be sure to weigh in online if you’d like to see classical music get its own series. We’d also love to hear your thoughts here — send us your comments below.
Watch the pilot:
Grab the book:
Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music by Blair Tindall
(Paperback — also available for Kindle)