Getting worked up over “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy’s new miniseries and his second Netflix production, feels like wasted effort. The show, and Murphy, mean well: Think of “Hollywood” not so much as a period drama about post-war Tinseltown, but as fan fiction depicting the time and place as Murphy wants it to be. “Hollywood” is a golden wish for inclusion in the studio system of the 1940s and 1950s that echoes all the way through to 2020. Murphy’s message is meaningful. It’s the execution that chafes.
“Hollywood” presents that era through the perspectives of hungry, aspiring movie stars, played by a diverse cast of up-and-comers (Laura Harrier, Jeremy Pope, Samara Weaving) mixing it up with regulars in Murphy’s actor stable (Darren Criss notably, plus “The Politician’s” David Corenswet). Together, they represent a generation of young talent desperate to get into the biz we call show and blocked at every turn by the harsh realities of the industry. It’s competitive, and it’s run chiefly by white men age 50 and over, which means that sexism, homophobia, and racism provide additional hurdles for anyone who isn’t a straight, middle American, white boy. Catching your big break is hard enough if you’re the default. For everybody else, it’s damn near an impossibility.
But Murphy’s characters each have an ace up their sleeve—coincidence. “Hollywood” is, after all, a serialized narrative, and as such enjoys the benefits of screenwriting happenstance, in which five ambitious people all vying for the same goal—success in the pictures, whatever it takes and no matter the cost—connect with one another and offer a helping hand to their fellow struggling artists. Granted, the struggle is more real for some of them than others: Claire Wood (Weaving), for instance, is a child of Hollywood royalty, being the daughter to Avis and Ace Amberg (Patti LuPone and Rob Reiner)—the father is the head of Ace Studios and thus one of the town’s ruling powers, while his long-suffering wife is erstwhile silent film star discarded and embittered by the advent of the talkies. That’s a layer of privilege to compliment her good, in-demand looks.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Archie Coleman (Pope), a screenwriter hopeful who turns tricks in between writing a script about the lonesome death of Peg Entwistle, best known for the swan dive she took off the “H” in the Hollywood sign. Gay Black men—Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan argue—do have a place in town: The Golden Tip Gas Station, where they service closeted Important Men™ for their pimp, Ernie (Dylan McDermott). Everyone in Hollywood whores themselves out as it is, so prostitution is less of a roadblock for Archie than the color of his skin. When he makes acquaintances with director Raymond Ainsley (Criss), hired to turn Archie’s script into a movie, they suck in a collective breath of anxiety over what may happen or really will happen, when the Ace heads discover that he’s Black. (The half-Filipino Raymond is quick to claim his Asian identity, but he’s also white-passing. Archie extends empathy, but is equally quick to point out that “that ain’t like being Black.”)
The understanding Murphy has on his chosen subject extends only as far as the point he means to make with it: Homophobia is bad. Demonizing freedom of sexual expression is bad. Outlawing orientations that incline away from societal norms codified by the default class is bad. Specifically, making it a crime to be gay forces gay people to live dangerously.
When Jim Parsons shows up in full histrionic asshole mode as Henry Wilson, starmaker and groomer of beefcakes, “Hollywood” demonstrates the way that Wilson’s predation twice victimizes the men he represents: First by abusing their bodies, then by exploiting their sexual orientation. Wilson treats Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), his current makeover project, as his plaything, and poor Hudson can’t tell a soul. Wilson is powerful, yes, and powerful men rarely pay for their transgressions, but because Hudson is gay, reporting Wilson means reporting himself, too. The dynamic at play in Hudson’s relationship with Wilson is genuinely fascinating, even if Murphy can’t settle on either a mood or a mode and appears to have instructed Parsons to play the role as a licentious funhouse madman.
This is where “Hollywood” runs into the most trouble. Like “Feud,” a similarly-themed Murphy series rooted in gossipy Hollywood mythologizing, the show doesn’t focus much on human drama—it’s too fixated on recreating the past and reenacting the wildest, and weirdest, and most infamous tales boxed away in decades gone by. Spinning characters from whole cloth as the “in” to the setting makes sense on paper, but as episodes tick by and Murphy introduces viewers to fictional bigwigs alongside real screen icons—Wilson, Hudson, plus Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah)—“Hollywood” stops acting like a real show. It’s tin-eared and confident but totally inadequate as a portrait of Hollywood as it was outside of its production design, which is admittedly rich.
“Hollywood” looks terrific. The cast is gorgeous, the costumes are impeccably tailored, the backdrops practically exhale vitality. But high aesthetic value is the bare minimum Murphy must shoot for; anything less would undo the show. “Hollywood” is about the illusory nature of its namesake. Jack Castello (Corenswet), one of those aforementioned white bread middle American boys, and for a brief moment Murphy’s lead, puts on a cop uniform and drags Archie out of a porn theater in the middle of the night, interrogates him over Shirley Temples, then gives away the performance—he’s trying to prove that he can, despite what naysayers declare, act. “Hollywood” functions similarly. There’s an unflattering “let’s put on a show” quality rattling around at the series’ core like a shoe in a dryer, as if everyone’s consciously play-acting to satisfy their woke corporate guidance officers.
“Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” says Ainsley in the second episode, “Hooray for Hollywood: Part 2,” “and if we change the way that movies are made, you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.” It’s a pretty thought—a necessary and contemporary sentiment dripping down over years passed. But good intentions don’t add up to a good story. [C-]