BINGE-R #1: Mozart in the Jungle + The Expanse
MOZART IN THE JUNGLE S3
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming, plus S1 and S2
Set amidst a classical music scene that is both privileged and tottering, Mozart in the Jungle pulls off several sly feats. The most notable is using whimsy and farce to not only entertain, but also illustrate. The wilder and weirder things get in this comic drama, whose creators include Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, the more telling it is about art’s contrary demands on artists, the pitfalls of ego, and the decay of venerable institutions. It also has some truly merciless putdowns, delivered with impeccable diction.
Gael Garcia Bernal helps define the deft tone as Rodrigo De Souza, a prodigious but mercurial Mexican conductor hired to reinvigorate the fictional New York Symphony Orchestra. The actor’s engaging warmth and lust for life both clashes with gilded tradition and accentuates his unpredictability, while Lola Kirke is the viewer’s plucky point scout as naïve oboist Hailey Rutledge, who is trying to get from backstage duties to a seat with the musicians.
Season three, which I’m four episodes into after it was released on Saturday, shakes up the setting. With the Symphony on a divisive strike, Rodrigo has absconded to Venice for the comeback of a legendary singer, Alessandra (Monica Bellucci), who Hailey aptly describes as “the Stevie Nicks of opera”. Although Alessandra is somewhat reminiscent of Rodrigo’s vexatious former wife, celebrated violinist Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder), a recurring tropical storm in the first two seasons, her regal demands do keep Rodrigo off balance.
“Why am I surrounded by dramatic people all the time?” laments Rodrigo during a crisis, although he full well knows the answer: it’s generally part and parcel of their rare talent. Mozart in the Jungle takes the work of the talented seriously – the music heard is often succinctly evocative – but it’s very amusing in capturing their foibles. The Symphony’s musicians, portrayed by a swell ensemble cast led by Saffron Burrows’ cellist, is defined by idiosyncratic ways and rigorous dedication – as with elite athletes, they play with injuries and blow off steam in questionable ways.
From the beginning the show has been considered a niche success, but I think it’s one of the best titles Stan has; if you’re new to it, just allow season one’s half-hour episodes time to sink in. You’ll start to notice not only the written eccentricities, but also the fluid camerawork that ties together extended sequences that have a delirious energy. Tempo, it turns out, is everything.
THE EXPANSE S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
George Lucas would not approve of The Expanse. Set in a 23rd century where humanity has populated the solar system, it has few space opera elements: no aliens, no droids, and no daring escapes at light speed; the first weapon picked up by a character is a massive wrench instead of a blaster. Gritty compromise is the daily reality in this promising science-fiction mystery, which repeatedly reduces a multi-planetary plot to the simple quest for survival in fragile environments where air is scarce, water is rationed, or militancy is on the rise.
The first season – Netflix releases a second in February – takes its time connecting a conspiracy’s outline via three angles. On a resource-rich asteroid belt space station a police detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), is tasked with finding a missing heiress, while on Earth a United Nations spymaster, Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is investigating Mars’ links to asteroid belt independence cells. In between them is a freighter crew, led by Jim Holden (Steven Strait), caught up in the intrigue when they answer a distress call.
This is one of the best science-fiction shows since the genre’s modern benchmark, the Battlestar Galactica reboot that ran between 2004 and 2009 (let us never speak of its botched finale). The world building comes via grim observations instead of grand monologues, as humanity has begun to splinter. The rebellious asteroid belt communities – “Belters” – have grown up in low-gravity environments, stretching their bodies and changing their bone density. They couldn’t walk on the Earth even if they wanted to, while Mars is defined by collectivist zeal. “Wrecking things is what Earthers do,” a Martian naval office tells Holden.
There is the obligatory zero-gravity sex scene in the first episode, but this adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s series of novels isn’t always that predictable. It helps to have Thomas Jane on the case, as the Hung star has an air of laconic dissatisfaction that percolates through his neo-noir quest. There’s enough detail in the spaceships and Blade Runner-like bazaars to keep genre fans intrigued, but you also don’t have to look too hard for contemporary references. This is a war of the worlds worth sticking with.
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