Spring 2014 Review: Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle

21 Feb

With last year’s threesome of House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Orange is the New Black, I now take serious Netflix as a provider of original programming and pay close attention to shows the service puts out. Amazon hasn’t quite reached that perch yet. They’ve started making pilots, have tried to generate interests with fan votes to determine which pilots are turned into series, but they haven’t yet had that breakthrough show that catapults Amazon as a serious player in the quality TV market (John Goodman’s Alpha House made small waves; it was more than nothing, but more likely a mix tape released while everyone eagerly awaits the first major label album).

Their most recent batch contained five adult pilots and five kid-geared pilots. I’ll look at two half hours here, Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.

Transparent

Transparent

Having come to these amazon pilots late, and without the normal shielding of reviews that I try to maintain before checking out a show for myself, I couldn’t help but catch the general whiff of effusive praise, if not the specifics.

The thing is, everyone else is pretty much right. There’s lots of ways to dissect television, and I can talk about individual shows and what makes great shows great for hours and thousands of words, but five minutes into the Transparent pilot you can tell it’s simply another class than any of the other pilots they’ve put out. It feels like a premium cable show, and I mean that in the best possible way. Transparent is a story about three siblings and their father, from Jill Soloway, a writer on Six Feet Under. The Six Feet Under connection shows. Since the Fisher clan have been off the air, there has been a serious dirth of great television about regular families – families that aren’t involved with the mafia, or with drug dealing, or any other hook, but just families, who, yes, probably have more issues than most normal families, but who are strong families who deal with these issues as a unit (Friday Night Lights was one, though that had the football hook, I’ve never seen Parenthood, so I can’t comment on that).

Here’s the quick lowdown. Transparent features three Los Angeles siblings. Sarah (Amy Landecker), is a former college lesbian (this is actually plot relevant) and now housewife married to a fairly well-off Len (Childrens Hospital and cameo appearances in every comedy’s Rob Huebel). Josh (Jay Duplass, of the brothers Duplass) is a music exec who seems to enjoy sleeping with the young musicians he courts. Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is the youngest and seems to be a disinterested layabout surviving on money from their dad. Their dad is Mort (Jeffery Tambor) who has big news to share with his kids.

The siblings interaction feels incredible genuine and characters feel surprisingly real after a measly 20 minutes of screen time, even though we know so little about any of them. Evoking that feeling however is a hallmark of good writing and a good show, and I’m excited to learn more about these characters and see the interaction between them.

Just watch it, it’s twenty minutes, and with the news that it’s going to series, Amazon may have their first bona fide critical hit on their hands, the show that demands TV viewers take Amazon seriously as a platform.

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle

 

Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy set in the high-strung (pun intended) world of classical music in New York. The main characters are a Cynthia (Saffron Burrow, Boston Legal and more) veteran cellist sleeping with the retiring conductor Thomas(Malcolm McDowell), the new younger conductor, Gustavo, who wants to shake things up (Gabriel Garcia Bernal), a young oboist, Hailey (Lola Kirke – sister of Girls’ Jemima) desperate to earn her way in, and well, I’m sure a few  more of the people on screen will turn out to be characters, but those were the obvious ones. Oh, and Bernadette Peters in a small role as Gloria, who is in charge of the symphony.

Mozart in the Jungle features a great idea for a premise, and there could be a good show here, but after watching Transparent you can really feel the gulf in polish between the two shows. Transparent feels fully formed, while Mozart in the Jungle feels like a rough draft. There’s a sketch here, but it feels more like a bunch of ideas; a brain storm, that they would maybe then really bear down on if it went to series. The jokes are well-intentioned and in the right spirit but mostly don’t exactly work. The characters, well, I get what they’re going for with each, but they don’t seem imbued with any of the depth of the Transparent characters. Again, I think this could be good but it needs help from where it is now.

Will I watch it again? Maybe. It’s hard to analyze these pilots, which we’re seeing before any series orders have been placed, and it’s possible that there’s a lot of work that’s done between this and the series order. I do think there’s something here if the writers can really drill down. That said, based merely on the quality of the first episode, it was okay but not quite there enough to deserve regular viewing.

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