We can only imagine the point at which a casual conversation between cousins Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola led these two scions of showbiz royalty to bet it all on a digital series about an eccentric young Mexican orchestra conductor. It certainly doesn’t strike one as high-stakes television, and classical music doesn’t have anything like that famous “sexy” factor that fast-talking junior TV execs love to extol. But Mozart in the Jungle works and it’s not just because of the universal sex appeal of Gael García Bernal, its magnetic lead. The writing is crisp and funny without pandering for yucks, the directing is agile and innovative, and it turns out that the lives of world-class oboists and first violins make for some pretty engaging television. In an unexpected but not surprising move, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association bestowed the show with two Golden Globe nominations in the Best TV Comedy and Best Actor in a TV Comedy categories for its inaugural season.
Unfortunately, none of this has translated into stellar viewership for Mozart in the Jungle as it moves into its second season on Amazon’s digital video platform, but those with an Amazon Prime account who have had the pleasure of watching the show have undoubtedly found a level of originality rarely seen on American television. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than a two episode arc in season two’s midpoint that finds GGB’s character, Rodrigo De Souza, returning home triumphantly to Mexico to direct the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
“As De Souza and his orchestra disembark in Mexico, we are immediately faced with an unfamiliar landscape: an actual living, bustling Mexico City street.”
Viewers bred on American network television can already imagine the setup — a few exterior shots of Mexico’s most clichéd landmarks, a handful of ethnically ambiguous extras with shaky Spanish, an inevitable mugging, kidnapping, or drug-related crime filmed on an L.A. backlot. This is Mexico in America’s televisual imagination, and even our most serious and well-meaning media portrayals fall time and again into these exotifying traps. Mexico’s complex reality is consistently glossed over to show a place of lawlessness and poverty that would be hard to recognize for most any Mexican, who like all human beings tend to focus on the beauty in their culture and lifestyle despite their many hardships.
But while most norteamericanos would be more than justified in expecting yet another variation on this age-old theme, somehow, over two episodes, Mozart in the Jungle manages to turn this all on its head. Indeed, as De Souza and his orchestra disembark in Mexico City in episode five, “El Regreso del Rey,” we are immediately faced with an unfamiliar landscape: an actual living, bustling Mexico City street. Peseros whiz by ahead of loping trolebuses as pedestrians dodge traffic on the city’s emblematic Avenida Juárez and De Souza welcomes his beloved orchestra to the city as he emphatically signals toward the country’s majestic Palacio de Bellas Artes.
“With a few very small gestures, and a minimal degree of sensitivity they have managed to upend decades, even centuries of misrepresentation.”
[Spoiler Alert] Then, of course, someone gets mugged. Just a few minutes in, first violin Warren Boyd is discovered with a lump over his right eye and his priceless violin on the lamb, in the hands of faceless criminals. What follows is a cleverly structured, Sherlock Holmes-style crime mystery that finds Boyd, De Souza, and an old friend from the conductor’s bad old days (played by Tenoch Huerta of Güeros) delving into the Mexico City underworld in search of the instrument. Along the way the writers send up Mexico City’s famous lawlessness with tongue-in-cheek details like an improvised parking spot on a busy sidewalk, or a nonchalant car chase with local police — but after a brief encounter with a violin-shredding underworld boss, the trio comes to learn that the true criminal isn’t who we might expect. In fact, he isn’t even Mexican.
Episode six, “How to Make God Laugh,” closes out the orchestra’s Mexican sojourn with a nostalgic, postcard-worthy trip south to the Pueblo Mágico of Tepoztlán in Morelos state. There, after escaping from a packed day of unwanted responsibilities De Souza brings oboist and personal assistant Hailey (whose name he consistently and hilariously mispronounces as jai alai) to visit his grandmother and former maestro. Things get a bit saccharine as the duo walks through fields of nopal at sunset and take in an array of breathtaking landscapes, but credit must be given for the wonderful casting of extras who bear the unmistakable authenticity of Mexican campesinos. After the musicians settle into abuela’s house the episode revels in the warmth and eccentricity of the Latin American abuela archetype while the camera soaks in visuals tropes like colorful clotheslines and bustling marketplaces. In all, De Souza’s interactions with family and friends back in his hometown are miraculously fresh and free of clichés while a subplot featuring Esai Morales as a Carlos Slim-esque billionaire also flips our expectations on their head when he ends up belting out a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
So cheers to Coppola, Schwartzman, and the rest of the team behind Mozart in the Jungle. With just a few very small gestures and a minimal degree of sensitivity they have managed to upend decades, even centuries, of misrepresentation. Over one hour and two episodes they offer up a silly, sometimes romantic, but ultimately loving portrayal of a country with deep traditions, proud people, and a singular vision of the world.