There was a moment when Mozart in the Jungle—Amazon’s dreamy little series about the busy, sometimes bitchy inner world of the New York classical music scene—almost snapped into the zeitgeist. It was the 2016 Golden Globes, and the series, which had just launched its second season, picked up two statuettes for best comedy and best actor in a comedy (for star Gael Garcia Bernal). The twin wins inspired a rash of frantic tweets and Google searches, with startled TV viewers wondering how this show (the “her?” of that year’s Globes) could have beaten out critical favorites like Master of None and Transparent.
The general consensus? This was yet another case of the Globes being the Globes, anointing an unpredictable choice for the hell of it. Instead of those wins proving that Mozart was a series worth watching, the series never really found a way to tap into the collective consciousness of mainstream viewers—even after the Globes. But here’s the thing about Mozart in the Jungle: its first season was lovely. Its second and third seasons were lovely. And its fourth season, which debuted Friday on Amazon, is lovelier and looser still, proving exactly why more people should have been paying attention to this delightful show all along.
This year, the conceit is the same as it’s ever been, more or less. The series—co-created by Roman Coppola,Alex Timbers, and Jason Schwartzman, who occasionally drops by for cameos—follows a whimsical composer named Rodrigo (Bernal), a rock star in the world of classical music who is swept in to revamp the New York Symphony. Once there, he meets Hailey Rutledge (played by Lola Kirke)—whose first name he charmingly pronounces like “jai alai”—a sweet, fledgling oboist trying to work her way into the upper echelon of the classical scene. She settles for being Rodrigo’s assistant, at first, sparking a bond that has blossomed and transformed over the course of the last few seasons. The rest of the cast is equally lovable. Broadway legend Bernadette Peters plays the no-nonsense president of the symphony, who favors a Betty Boop–esque wardrobe. Malcolm McDowell plays the cantankerous conductor emeritus. Saffron Burrows plays the symphony’s sultry cellist, and Hannah Dunne plays Hailey’s floaty, hipster best friend.
If there is a real raison d’être for newcomers to tune in, it’s to watch Bernal give one of the silliest and most magnetic performances of his career. Rodrigo, at first, seems like a caricature of an artist: he’s eccentric and unpredictable, personality traits externally characterized by a very goofy, curly wig that Bernal has to wear for several episodes. But Bernal’s performance ultimately softens the eye-rolling that Rodrigo’s character could have inspired, were he played by a less deft actor. Instead, Bernal’s Rodrigo is a romantic visionary with a heartfelt ambitious streak, caught between selfishly chasing inspiration and reaching out to inspire others around him. Why resist his charms?
Mozart in the Jungle often errs on the comedic side of dramedy, striking a pleasant tone. The mood is warm and the stakes are manageable, making it the TV equivalent of a sparkling cocktail. It’s mostly shot in a Manhattan that seems to be caught in an eternal summer, the season when the city is at its dreamiest. Mozart occasionally leans into that dreamy facade, dropping twinges of surreality; Bernal sometimes has hallucinatory conversations with famous dead composers, including, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Season 3, the show aired its boldest episode ever, staging a live concert at Rikers Island. The episode, filmed in a brooding vérité style, features the orchestra performing Olivier Messiaen’s heady “Quartet for the End of Time,” and ends with interviews with various actual inmates giving their sincere opinions about the music. It plays perfectly into the show’s strengths, while also introducing viewers to a brilliant piece of classical music.
When the show gets bored with New York, it jaunts to locales like Venice, Havana, and Mexico City. Several episodes in Season 4 take place in Tokyo, focusing less on the city’s bustling streets and more on the quietude of its musical and cultural traditions; one episode features a gorgeously detailed enactment of a traditional tea ceremony in all its ancient and A.S.M.R.-friendly splendor. The scene is confident in its stillness, a lovely piece of calm in a pile of TV shows obsessed with shocking their viewers from one moment to the next. There’s a harmony to it all: Bernal’s performance, main director Paul Weitz’s thoughtful eye, the woven-in surreality, the welcome introduction to forgotten classical gems. Like any good orchestra, Mozart is bubbling with smart players who swell into a symphony of something greater. Go ahead and give it a listen.
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Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.