There is a lot to like about Mozart in the Jungle (2015-), but, if you rewatch the opening episode, you will notice that it is a continuity nightmare in comparison to the rest of the series. At best, the discrepancies between the pilot and later episodes can be written off as the minor missteps of a show finding its voice over time. At worst, the episode can be viewed as a dishonest marketing plot to draw viewers in with a more ostentatious opening.
The party at Hailey’s (Lola Kirke) and Lizzie’s (Hannah Dunne) unrealistically large (but ever so camera-friendly) loft tries to not so subtly hammer in the message that the classical world is far more exciting than we expect. With the partygoers’ musically inventive ways to get high and drunk, we see this is not just an extremely passionate creative class but also a group of people that knows how to party. The scene is effective at getting our attention, but it does not really mesh with the rest of the series: in later episodes, we learn that Lizzie isn’t a classical musician but an aimless Bohemian, and Hailey isn’t particularly rich with friends or a happening social life.
Then there’s the gratuitous sex: there are three hookups in the opening episode in addition to a playful recounting of sexual exploits with a range of musicians that Cynthia (Safron Burrows) shares with Hailey, positing herself as a sexual superstar of sorts akin to the Walt Chamberlain of classical music. Another of the hookups, between Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) and an orchestral staff worker, Sharon (Jennifer Kim), plays like wish-fulfillment for her and a quick way to illustrate his sexual prowess and maverick style. Leading up to the scene in question, he appears bored in her company and treats her disrespectfully, but for reasons unexplained (the power of a jump cut), they end up making out before he discards her again, leaving her breathless. This serves the pilot’s need for attention-grabbing action, but it is not particularly consistent with Rodrigo’s personality (he doesn’t seem so thoughtless in his personal interactions) or Sharon’s (she’s significantly more assertive) in later episodes. It is later revealed that Sharon is not just any staffer but his personal assistant. The two never seem to exhibit any sexual chemistry after this moment or make reference to what happened.
Additionally, Rodrigo is written so arrogantly in the pilot that it is hard to explain this behavior in light of his character in future episodes. In addition to his treatment of Sharon, he blatantly calls out departing conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) for his inadequacies as a conductor and doesn’t bat an eye when he’s called a prick. Rodrigo eventually becomes the emotional centerpiece of the series and someone worth rooting for, but he is a relatively static character. Arguably, he appears arrogant or aloof at first, while he becomes more lovable as the protagonists (and audience) get to know him better. But that doesn’t entirely excuse the inconsistency of his relationship with Thomas. When Thomas attempts to be friendly with Rodrigo a couple episodes later, Rodrigo exhibits a reverence towards the man that contradicts the initial relationship established, in which one party exhibited disdain and the other exhibited indifference.
So what gives? Mozart in the Jungle was part of the Amazon Pilots program, in which viewers watch the first episodes of various original shows, influencing Amazon’s decision as to which shows it will pick up for a full season. The most likely explanation for the style of Mozart‘s pilot is that, because it was the free preview Amazon offered to entice subscribers, the episode is front-loaded with gratuitous sex and misleading exposition to sell the flash and pomp of the series. It’s worth asking the question: is this how it’s always been done?
Under the traditional cable model, a pilot is sold to a TV network. In order to beat the competition and get that greenlight, the pilot has to successfully meld exposition with flashy excitement and a sense of what the show’s voice will be. After the series gets picked up, the writing team gets a front season order (for typically 13 episodes), and they have a chance to further develop that voice while doing what Mozart in the Jungle failed to do: tonally integrate the pilot with the rest of the season.
Under the traditional model, the pilot still has to be flashy because the show is competing against other new shows for the attentions of a trigger-happy audience. However, the show is judged by the ratings on a week-to-week basis, so the writers can’t just write a different show in week two for fear of losing the audience that tuned in the first week. What critics often decry as a detriment to quality (the need to appease mass audiences from week to week) can also act as a continuity safety net.
Under the newer subscription model, Netflix and Hulu Plus have no pressure to catch viewers with the first episode, and they have measures in place to support shows from having to sensationalize early episodes: no ratings numbers are released, and shows are generally given two season deals right off the bat. It’s perhaps due to the skills of Netflix’s acquisition team that there have been few slow burns (at least according to most audience reception) under this model, but one wouldn’t be surprised to see Netflix or Hulu Plus as places where slow-burning shows could thrive.
Amazon Prime’s model has neither luxury: It can’t afford slow burns so the pilot must be flashy, while the continuity isn’t kept in check by week-to-week ratings. As a result a show like Mozart in the Jungle must achieve different aims in the first episode than in the rest of the series.
Ironically, most audiences agree that Mozart in the Jungle improves after its pilot, as it places less emphasis on over-the-top, sex-driven plots in favor of more nuance and depth. The series recently won Golden Globes for Best Actor (Gael García Bernal) and Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy. Evidently, the show has found its voice and grown into a great success. However, looking back at its origins, the distance it has come seems that much greater.