In great dramatic television, sometimes less is more. Hollywood seems to know that some of the time, and ignore it the rest. The return of Ryan Murphy, one of the biggest players in TV writing, with regular collaborator Ian Brennan is a splashy, big-budget Netflix production that swings for the fences at nearly every turn.
It is seven episodes of swish, polished entertainment full of memorable characters and strong performances, but only a couple of these instalments near top-tier storytelling. Light and zippy, Hollywood makes for good Netflix binge-watching, rarely invoking boredom even over six hours of continuous viewing. Yet with the talent involved and the potential of its revisionist take on Golden Age Hollywood, it provides minor thrills where it promised major dramatic power.
Finding Your Feet
Just as its subjects adjust to life in Tinseltown, so too Hollywood as a show takes a while to find its rhythm, and arguably never finds its tone. The elongated beginning moves at a lick and performs all the functions of a solid series introduction. We get a nice feel for the period, with the large budget clearly put to use on some gorgeous set and costume design, and we meet our principal characters. In this show it takes a full two episodes to meet them all, however, with a large ensemble cast on display. The core characters are a group of young wannabe stars, outsiders trying and failing to make their dreams come true.
First off there’s Jack Castello (David Corenswet), our initial introduction into this world, who performs some ‘services’ for Hollywood inhabitants in order to support his pregnant wife and keep his acting dream alive. Working at the gas station where he ‘turns tricks’ leads Jack to meet Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter who thinks his screenplay Peg (later renamed Meg) has a shot at being made if he can just keep the producers from knowing his race. Then we meet actor Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), who’s talent is recognised but only in service of roles as a maid, and her director boyfriend Raymond (Darren Criss). Finally add to that Claire Wood (Samara Weaving, doing good things with a weak role), the daughter of studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), and bulky, nervous gay man Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), who are both hoping to be actors. Roy quickly gets a rebrand as Rock Hudson, one of several real-life figures to be fictionalised in the show.
Once all the characters are introduced, the show still takes a while for them to become three-dimensional figures, and for any particularly great drama to arise between them. Each one is a variant on ‘wants to be a star but can’t’ until their individual depths are ultimately explored. The ex-military background of some of the men, for example, is mentioned but never expanded on, leaving us with relatively hollow characters for almost half a series. The problem partly lies in the characters being so disparate. Jack and Archie have an early connection, as do Archie and Rock, and Raymond and Camille. Yet it is when all of them come together in the series’ second half, that the dynamic works best. The idea behind all these young dreamers taking on the entrenched prejudice of their world presupposes that they are a group, a band of misfits. Once they do feel like a group, rehearsing together and supporting each other, the show has a nice feel to it. There is a sense of where the show might have gone in these scenes: a soapier, perhaps funnier, show about a group of youngsters working through life together, like High School Musical but better and with more sex.
It is ironic, really, that the marketing for the show hangs so much on these six figures. Despite good performances, and a strong sense of unity in the later episodes, these characters are the less entertaining half of Hollywood. It is really the older, apparently supporting players, who add colour, vitality and deep emotion to the show. The gas station owner Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who wanted to be a star and is now a glorified pimp; Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), wife of studio boss Ace and frequenter of Ernie’s gas station; casting director Ellen (Holland Taylor) and producer Dick (Joe Mantello), who keep the studio running with little thanks; the monstrous agent Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons, terrific), who determines to make Rock Hudson a star; all of these characters have seen Hollywood for years, know its dirty secrets and are twisted by them. When the show spends more time with this crowd, delving past their sardonic comments and into their deep-rooted pain, it is fantastic. In general, giving into its nastier and more profane instincts makes Hollywood both more entertaining TV, and a deeper, more compelling thematic work.
Do stick with Hollywood, because for a while the more wearisome La La Land inhabitants and the ambitious youngsters are all united around the production of Meg, daring to break the rules and produce a picture that will outrage conservative America. When this happens, the political themes, the character drama, and the joy of watching all the little details and machinations behind the movies combine to make for a slick, thoroughly enjoyable drama. The social and political weight hangs with Archie, Camille and Rock, but that almost diverts them from being vividly-drawn characters outside of this, so we need the likes of Henry and Avis to bring the show to life.
Much has been made of Hollywood’s revisionist premise. It presents us with a film industry where Rock Hudson didn’t become Rock Hudson, the marginalised gained power, and a groundbreaking motion picture was a bona fide success well before its time. There is an admirable optimism in this, and there is no doubting that Murphy and Brennan have their hearts in the right place. Moreover, it must be stressed that Hollywood does not just pretend everyone was socially liberal in the Golden Age so that the show can play dress-up whilst not upsetting ‘the woke people’ as some will doubtlessly complain. It’s nothing like that. It is an interesting and considered premise that acknowledges the terrible injustices of the time and rails against them through a group of idealistic dreamers. It supposes, with a welcome positive outlook, that the stars might have aligned for these dreamers and outsiders, and that they could have changed the world.
The problems, then, come not in the idea itself, but in its execution. The title sequence for the show is glossy, superficial, and gratingly earnest. It encapsulates the problems Hollywood comes up against time and time again. There are grand ‘fight the power’ moments throughout the series that, despite the effort of the actors and worthy ideals behind them, fall curiously flat. Sometimes this is a case of the platitudes amounting to little more than ‘prejudice exists and it is bad’; sometimes the problem is that the big speeches feel sudden, tonally jarring, and unearned; sometimes they just feel unnecessarily bold, achieving less than a smaller, more considered scene would.
There is a sheen to Hollywood that is rarely broken through, despite some white-power protests and cross-burning. It is nice to see that the show does not deal in sadism, or revel in the depiction of hate crimes so that it presents just another portrait of the marginalised as downtrodden and anguished, but it could do more to convey the deep effects of prejudice. The pushback against it feels too easy, too simple. When characters want to break down barriers and fight the good fight they are warned of the pain it will cause them, but that pain is never really explored on a human level. We understand that the film industry’s intolerance is hard, but we rarely feel it. This is because it is not presented that often on a character level. To convincingly sell the idea of someone fighting the system, you first need to outline their personal relationship to the system.
This more complex, individualised experience of prejudice does come through sometimes, and this is when Hollywood shines. When half-Filipino Raymond is challenged by Camille because he can get away with ‘passing’ as white when she can’t, or when we are reminded that Archie has not one but two battles to fight for acceptance, or when we are soberingly told that the abuse he is receiving now is frankly a picnic compared to what he saw as a child, the premise flies. The key lies in embedding the social and political themes of the show in the specific experiences of these characters and their relationships; then each part of the drama hits harder, and with more depth.
The show’s examination of manipulation and the use of sex as a weapon has this same strength and is nicely handled. It entwines Rock Hudson’s story with that of so many wannabe stars who were taken advantage of, and therefore really lets us see what is going on. It makes the audience feel authentically uncomfortable and earns its portrait of eventual rebellion by allowing us to understand the pain caused. Consistently taking a similar, character-driven approach to the series’ other issues might have resulted in a depiction of injustice that was both more harrowing and more rousing.
Where Do We Go Now?
At present it is not clear whether or not Netflix will commission a second series of Hollywood, or even if Murphy and Brennan want to make another. Plot-wise, Hollywood both wraps itself up pretty neatly as a limited series, and dangles a possible trajectory for the future. That said, the show’s history-tinkering approach could make the story mechanics of a second series slightly tricky. How far you extend the fantasy, and whether or not you bring in more invented elements or try to keep them to a minimum as time wears on, are difficult questions to answer and may favour leaving the show as it is.
On a character level, however, it would be a shame not to get more of this. Hollywood may not be quite the resounding success it sets out to be, but there’s life in these characters and there’s more drama to mine from their relationships with each other and with the town they both worship and despise. It takes over half the series before all the elements of Hollywood come together satisfyingly, leaving us with just a couple of episodes where Hollywood really fulfils its potential. Some more like this would be nice.
There is a nagging feeling that the show would have been better off ditching its rigid, finite structure based around the production of Meg in favour of a longer, more sprawling series. The weighty themes and ensemble cast could have been fashioned into a meaty Mad Men-like drama that pulls back the curtain and exposes the dark underbelly of an industry. It would be nice to have seen more humour in here too. The show deals with very serious subject matter with a steadfastly light overarching tone, but also raises very few laughs. It seems an odd tonal choice to make that holds the show back from being the more vibrant, fun series it could have been.
It is a recurring thought when watching Hollywood that it ‘would have made a great series’ if various different choices had been made. Ultimately, it’s a good show, but praise can only be so high for a seven-part series that doesn’t hit top gear until the fifth instalment.
What did you make of Hollywood‘s revisionist approach? Would you like to see another series? Let us know in the comments!
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