In the third season of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, streaming on Friday, a musicians’ strike forces the fictional New York Symphony to rent out its theater to a mixed-media spectacle for children involving lots and lots of bubbles. “Everyone loves bubbles,” the symphony’s president, Gloria (Bernadette Peters), says, and you can practically see her soul leave her body.
Mozart in the Jungle, about a group of classical musicians in New York City and their tempestuous Mexican conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal), would be easy to disparage as trivial escapism for coastal elites. But it’s a joy to bask in this world where every character lives and breathes art, and the show demonstrates respect for art highbrow and low, amateur and professional. Tonally, the show mirrors the plight of its characters, striking a delicate balance between lighthearted whimsy and the more prosaic realities of the art life.
The first half of the season takes place largely in Venice, where Rodrigo has absconded after the orchestra goes on strike at the end of Season 2. He’s there at the behest of Alessandra (Monica Bellucci), a.k.a. La Fiamma, a legendary opera singer who’s staging a comeback. In New York, the symphony members are picketing outside the theater when they’re not taking on odd jobs — Bob (Mark Blum) is driving for Uber, and Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) is playing bass in a rock band. Money is the shark lurking beneath the boat, always threatening to upend the artists’ brilliant schemes. Alessandra believes her comeback is just a means to cash in on her celebrity; Rodrigo is forever complaining about the “symphony of red tape” he has to deal with in New York.
The third season finds the symphony’s conductor emeritus, Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), collaborating with a young electronic musician. By way of explaining what he wants from Thomas, the young electronic composer says, “The Martians have landed. Introduce them to Thomas Pembridge. How would you do that?” Despite his initial skepticism, the old maestro finds the experience rewarding: “Fucking great!” he exclaims, watching the song come together on the computer screen before him. Alessandra, too, is bridging classical and contemporary culture: Her comeback concert includes a new aria based on the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco story.
Ingenue oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke) has been touring Europe as a member of world-renowned cellist Andrew Walsh’s ensemble — which, it happens, is scheduled to perform in Venice soon after Rodrigo arrives. But from the start there’s tension between Walsh (Dermot Mulroney), a soloist and inveterate ham, and Hailey, who feels the ensemble is out of balance. “There’s no distinction between the pieces,” she complains to another member. In the first episode, Hailey leaves Walsh’s group and is taken in by Alessandra, who invites her to stay, along with Rodrigo, at her centuries-old Venetian “palazzo” and work as her dresser for her comeback show.
But Hailey’s early conflict with Walsh foretells a new career path: conducting. This season, she takes her first tentative steps toward becoming her own maestro. There’s a beautiful scene early in the season in which Rodrigo boils down the essence of conducting for Hailey as they stand on the balcony of a grand Venetian building. He says the art of conducting is all about connecting with every member of the orchestra, describing Cynthia’s hint of melancholy and Betty’s (Debra Monk) distinctive oboe playing, “like the salt in the dessert.” Once you’ve made that connection with each musician, he says, “You feel you’re home. That you’re not alone.”
Bernal, who won a Golden Globe for his role as Rodrigo, continues to be Mozart’s main draw. He’s interminably charming as the zealously dedicated maestro who has no patience for the endless practicalities of life and work, an eagerness that comes through in Bernal’s dynamic delivery. When Alessandra asks what he means when he says she’s being “tentative,” he replies, “Like, uh, you’re being like a little puppy dog instead of being a pantera.” Later, when he asks Hailey to fill in for him as conductor during a rehearsal, he tells her the piece should sound like “a French person trying to be Spanish.”
The chemistry between Bernal and Kirke is still strong, and shippers of this couple (hi!) will have lots to chew on this season. But the show also wisely avoids putting Hailey back where she started, as the maestro’s protégé; instead, Thomas becomes Hailey’s mentor. The season subtly but definitively promotes women as creators, not muses — Hailey’s best friend and roommate, Lizzie (Hannah Dunne), has taken to dressing like Vítězslava Kaprálová, a 1930s Czech composer whose career was cut short when she died of tuberculosis at age 25.
Unlike some recent music-related series, Mozart in the Jungle wrings drama out of not just the art-commerce divide, but the performances themselves. Here, music is drama. When Hailey conducts her first performance in front of an audience, the sequence is the episode’s climax, and we see and hear the whole thing from start to finish. In another climactic scene midway through the season, Alessandra gives a powerful performance involving a real knife and what may or may not be a real gun. The whole sequence is wrought with tension, both because of the potential for real danger on the stage and the audience’s reaction to La Fiamma’s avant-garde Amy Fisher aria.
But Mozart generously collects all forms of art under the same tent; eventually, even the bubbles get their due. The show is eager to dust off classical music and let it breathe. In Season 1, Rodrigo makes the orchestra rehearse outside in a desolate alley, union rules be damned; in Season 2, after being locked out of the theater, the orchestra stages a free concert in Washington Square Park. This season, Rodrigo brings Alessandra out of the concert hall and into the streets to recapture the vitality of her performance.
A late episode in the new season sees the symphony members travel to Rikers Island, where they perform for a group of inmates in the prison yard. The episode is presented mockumentary-style, as a goofily pretentious film by Jason Schwartzman’s character, the classical music aficionado Bradford Sharpe; it doesn’t totally work, mostly because we’re meant to laugh at the documentary parody despite the genuinely moving situation it depicts. But the final third — in which we see the performance and then the talking-head-style reactions from actual inmates — is as divine as anything I’ve seen on TV all year.
Mozart in the Jungle Season 3 is available to stream on Amazon Prime on Friday, Dec. 9.