Mozart in the Jungle shouldn't be as good as it is. Or maybe, it should be better—I'm not quite sure. The premise brings the familiar to a unique setting: An aspiring young oboist (played by Lola Kirke, sister to Girls' Jemima) breaks into the world of the New York Philharmonic, only to find more sex, drugs, and egos than she could have imagined. It sounds like the recipe for the sort of workplace dramedy, or coming-of-age tale, we've seen for years, with the hospital/law office swapped for the orchestra.
But Mozart in the Jungle, for all its paint-by-numbers plotting, isn't much like anything else on TV. For one, it's not on TV at all—it's on Amazon Instant Video, the online behemoth's increasingly-relevant challenger to Netflix that doubles as a place to order Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap on short demand. For another, its half-hour, ten-episode format is still unusual, if increasingly popular. Though it's certainly more comedy than drama, Mozart in the Jungle would probably have been stretched to 43 minutes on a major network. Amazon seems to love this new style of TV, and it's paying off—the similarly-structured Transparent was Complex's favorite show of 2014.
More unusual than form or format, though, is the show's plotting and pacing. I don't think I've ever seen a series that diffuses internal conflict more quickly than Mozart in the Jungle does at every turn. Take the season's main story arc: In need of revitalizing its orchestra, the New York Philharmonic hires a sexy young genius name Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) as its new conductor. The people in charge know he's going to be eccentric, controversial, and difficult, but also think that he'll be worth the hype he brings to classical music. As it turns out, he is indeed eccentric, controversial, and difficult, but, yes, his genius is worth the hassle. In any other show Rodrigo's proclivities for huge hair and hallucinogenic drugs would have been a surprise. Who knew this maestro with a parrot wouldn't like doing PR stunts?! But in the world of Mozart in the Jungle everyone knows what they're getting into from the start.
The refusal to stoke fires results in a weirdly even but strangely charming tone. In one episode, Rodrigo fires the world's most famous pianist (played by the fantastic Wallace Shawn) because piano just doesn't feel right for opening night. Any other series would have had Shawn's egomaniacal character making a huge stink. Instead, Rodrigo and Shawn's characters immediately settle their differences and start working through their shared psychological issues together as new best buds. It's totally weird and contradictory to how we've learned TV has to be plotted and paced, but in the world of Mozart and the Jungle it works.
Like the pills that are so copiously imbibed by the symphony's performers, Mozart in the Jungle is easy to swallow. From the stodgy symphony benefactors to Rodrigo himself, the vibe is unapologetically pleasant. Considering its creators are Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Alex Timbers, though, maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. Schwartzman and Coppola have had somewhat twee sensibilities in many of their other projects, from Schwartzman's Bored to Death to their work with Wes Anderson. Still, compared to the dark irony that's been synonymous with premium cable, it's a move that feels downright refreshing.
The dry, mockumentary-ish nature of HBO's recent comedies has become so standard that I didn't realize I longed for something more wholesome. Rather than handheld cameras, Mozart in the Jungle is most often shot with a clean, movie-like quality. And while the direction is largely perfunctory, there are occasional transcendent moments, such as the Roman Coppola-helmed "You Go to My Head" that takes place largely in the enormous mansion of a wealthy symphony patron and features a strikingly beautiful scene involving a horse.
The other reason the show works—and this is the main one—is its exemplary cast. The ostensible main character Kirke's Hailey, who's beautiful and charming in all the ways you need a central character to be, and her aspiring-musician motivations are believable, if by the book. I found myself rooting for her horn-tooting abilities along with her cadre of hipster buddies. But really, Kirke is only there to play second oboe (or third) to García Bernal's Rodrigo. Instead of embodying the rock star maestro as a raging egoist or insufferable prick, García Bernal portrays him with freneticism and wry humor. Sure, he likes his sandwiches made just so and his maté—a pitch-perfect affectation—brewed with compulsive exactitude, but he's also a caring person who loves his art above anything else. He's funny, self aware, and knows exactly how charming he can be—rare traits in what could have been a two-dimensional caricature.
Malcolm McDowell is also fantastic as Rodrigo's foil, the aging ex-maestro Thomas, whose mid-season breakdown is enormous fun to watch; both of them together make for some of the best TV of last year. Jason Schwartzman also appears in a cameo as a podcast host with questionable attire, while The Daily Show's John Hodgman makes an appearance as a mysterious Guggenheim heir with questionable motives. (Hodgman, though undeniably funny in his first appearance, winds up being a slightly-too-goofy miscalculation later in the series.)
It can be hard to get excited about a show that isn't trying to say anything that's not capital-I important when our TV expectations have become so enormously high. But between True Detective, Mad Men, and The Knick, it's nice to have television that doesn't ask anything of its viewers except to have a nice time. A large part of my positive reaction to Mozart in the Jungle could also have been due to the fact that I was in California on vacation when Amazon quietly released it, free from responsibilities of, say, actually having to write about the show. I could just lay on the couch and enjoy myself, unwinding with its world-class piccoloists.
Unlike Netflix's Marco Polo, which crashed down with an epic thud earlier in the month, Mozart in the Jungle simply appeared like a melody on the wind. No wonder I'm still humming along.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.