A colleague — a theater professor — recommended the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle to me. She said the first couple of episodes are a little clunky, but if you get through them, it’s totally worth it. She has good taste, so I checked it out.
First of all, I see why a theater person would be drawn in right away: the acting is awesome, and the writing is good. The stories… improve as the series goes on.
The most painful thing, right from the start is the awful, terrible, unrealistic fake “playing” of actors pretending to be in an orchestra. Like, the production staff handed an instrument to an actor and gave them zero instruction on how it’s played or how to hold it or anything. Maybe a few of them took the initiative to look at some pictures of how real players look when they’re playing; but some of them didn’t even bother to do that carefully. The bent wrists, the wrong hands, the total lack of fingers moving… it’s so horribly fake that I had to fast-forward through it. It was too painful to watch.
And then there’s the conducting. There are several conductors — all men, though of various ages, races, and nationalities, which is a thing they explore in a pleasant way. There is one sentence that refers to women, and that’s Bernadette Frikkin Peters shrugging, “it’s so hard to find great women conductors.” And then they go ahead and just have all men conductors and never mention it again. So it’s a nice level playing field where all of the conducting is equally terrible — and, oh gods and bicycles, the conducting is terrible. It’s worse than any real conducting student I’ve ever seen. I know nobody likes to see their profession portrayed inexpertly by actors, and I’m sure 90% of the audience aren’t bothered about how ridiculously useless most of the conducting is… but a show about classical music should give a hoot about the quality of performing that goes on. And conducting is the musical task where it really matters what it looks like. So, I wish they cared a little.
The conductors’ acting is really good. The writers exploration of a conductor’s relationship to the score and the composer is even pretty true. Their inclusion of the role of conductor as advocate for the ensemble, fundraiser, charismatic leader, humble servant of art… all of that is really, really interesting and gets deeper and better as the series goes on. I’m so glad they dig into that, and it really rings true. It’s just the arm-waving that is cringe-inducing.
Toward the end of the second series, they start to have real instrumentalists actually playing on camera — including a for-real youth orchestra for-real playing some for-real legit good stuff. With horrible, stupid, fake conducting being perpetrated in front of them by an otherwise very compelling actor. I bet any of those kids could have conducted better than that poor actor.
The first twenty episodes got better and better, so I intend to watch the third season (currently in production, according to IMDB), anticipating it will continue to improve. Further, I hope that the next season will increase the presence of real musicians to include a real conductor (or at least some more realistic conducting) and maybe that conductor will be a woman.
But for the record…
Dear Mozart in the Jungle:
Please include some women conductors. We exist, we’re not hard to find, and we’re awesome. And if you hire a woman to portray a conductor, give her some damn training so she doesn’t look as moronic as the current actors you have thus far forced to embarrass themselves with idiotic arm waving.