LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Buoyed by superb casting and an organic setting for flamboyant, larger-than-life characters, "Mozart in the Jungle" may not qualify as a masterpiece, but it falls squarely into the pleasant-addition-to-the-neighborhood category in Amazon's impressive package of original series. Indeed, on a conventional network, this half-hour show - whose producers include Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman - would feel like the perfect lead-out to "Alpha House," the streamer's D.C.-set comedy, which also provides a satirical window onto a world of money, power and egos that operates by its own arcane set of rules.
In what feels like a particular coup, "Mozart's" ensemble features Gael Garcia Bernal as the new conductor of the New York Symphony, taking the baton from his imperious predecessor, Thomas, played with appropriate swagger by Malcolm McDowell. Bernal's maestro Rodrigo is the sort who can get by with one name, Cher-like, while bringing a rock-n-roll vibe to classical music (his hair receives inordinate attention).
That said, he's uncomfortable with efforts to exploit that mystique by, say, trotting himself out like a prize pony in front of well-heeled donors, as well as a board led by a trustee (Bernadette Peters) seemingly more interested in marketing than music.
All this is witnessed largely through the eyes of the obligatory newcomer, Hailey (Lola Kirke), an oboe player who dreams of more than just giving lessons to snotty rich kids, and who gains an opportunity to audition for the orchestra when Rodrigo begins implementing changes, much to the chagrin of its elder members. Hailey is taken under the wing of Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), a cellist who moonlights by playing in an off-off-Broadway production of a Styx musical (yes, the "I'm Sailing Away" band), which is only one of her interesting extracurricular activities.
Adapted by Coppola, Schwartzman and Alex Timbers from a book by Blair Tindall subtitled "Sex, Drugs & Classical Music," and directed by Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"), the premiere has a breezy quality that remains intact throughout. That's helpful, since the sense of urgency surrounding the narrative fades after the first couple of episodes (seven of the 10 were previewed) establish the premise.
Much of the ongoing conflict stems from Rodrigo's efforts to invigorate an orchestra where members fret a lot about non-musical issues like making sure their designated coffee breaks aren't overlooked. (Schwartzman, incidentally, appears in a later episode as a podcaster who interviews Thomas, one of several amusing cameos.)
By introducing this series on the heels of "Transparent," Amazon continues to make waves in the half-hour arena, a genre where others have conspicuously struggled of late. And while "Mozart" is surely a niche confection, the show generally shines by proving long on charm even when it's short on laughs.