'Hollywood': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Stylish, strongly acted and completely disingenuous about the arc of the moral universe.

Creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, working with writer-director Janet Mock, bring Netflix a hopeful but frustratingly naive alt-historical look at 1940s Hollywood.

With the possible exception of Norman Lear, no TV producer working today knows better than Ryan Murphy that change is possible in Hollywood if you're willing to dedicate yourself to seeing that change through. From the boundary-breaking cast of Pose to the directing leaps brought about by the inclusivity-focused Half Initiative, Murphy's legacy of enacting progress might outstrip his artistic legacy, or at least the first season of The Politician.

No longer content to overhaul the present-day movie and TV industries, Murphy and frequent collaborator Ian Brennan have hopped in a time machine for their new Netflix limited series, Hollywood, a consistently handsome, often moving, frequently sanctimonious erasure of the actual slow nature of Tinseltown progress in favor of something that's more a fairy tale than an alt-history. Much more so than Pose, a fundamentally hopeful show set against the unlikely backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, Hollywood too often comes across as simplistic and naive, though if it causes anyone to research the period depicted, there's value in that.

Set in a fuzzy aftermath of World War II, Hollywood begins as the story of Jack Costello (David Corenswet), who hopes to ride his corn-fed good looks to stardom, but finds himself working as a glorified gigolo at a gas station/brothel operated by Ernie (a never-better Dylan McDermott), a wannabe who never made it. Jack, who is doggedly hunky and straight, is our point of entry to a group of aspiring screen legends, mostly held back by the traditions of racism and misogyny in early Hollywood. There's aspiring screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), black and gay; aspiring director Raymond (Darren Criss), who has to keep telling everybody that he's half Asian; Raymond's girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), a black ingenue stuck playing maids; and Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), who someday will become the movie star known as Rock Hudson.

The old guard, some open to progress and some serving as stern gatekeepers, includes studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) and his frequently overlooked wife, Avis (Patti LuPone), Ace's chief of production, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), head of casting Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) and vicious talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who takes a very personal interest in Rock Hudson.

Archie's script about the late starlet Peg Entwistle is about to bring all the characters together, and maybe it will also bring about change that could reshape the industry and the world.

Entwistle was, of course, a real person. She committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the "H" in the Hollywoodland sign. Her death was one of the era's great scandals and helped expose the rotten underbelly of the glitz and glamour. Hollywood is peppered with onscreen figures plucked from real life; in addition to Hudson, its characters include Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), Tallulah Bankhead (Paget Brewster) and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec). And there are name-drop references to dozens of other real figures, people you'll know about if you listen to Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast. I'd add that after Feud and Hollywood, it's time for Murphy to put Longworth on retainer as a consultant. Given the apparent lack of interest in doing rigorous historical research on Hollywood pioneers, the resulting dramatic backdrop of the new show feels closer to a Wikipedia skim of Kenneth Anger's already fact-challenged Hollywood Babylon.

I get why creators Murphy and Brennan, as well as Pose's Janet Mock, who wrote and directed multiple episodes, didn't want to do a reality-based story focusing on adversity and the long decades during which studio chiefs and Washington insiders enforced onscreen whitewashing and segregation. The tragic stories of people whose careers were sidelined and whose dreams went unfulfilled are the ones we frequently hear about, and those tragedies have become a trope in and of themselves. There's ample uplift and inspiration in Hollywood's alterations of the historical script, making it much more progressive than Quentin Tarantino's "Wouldn't it be nice if we could bludgeon history's greatest villains and feel better about everything" brand of revisionism.

But it's an update so rosy it could almost accompany its forward-looking lectures with the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Criss' character expounds nonstop and self-righteously on the importance of representation and Hollywood's ability to show audiences the world the way it should be. And who can or would argue? This is a gentler version of history. It's Feud if Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had decided in the first episode that "this movie would be much better if we were friends" and stuck to their guns, with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? marking a sea change for Hollywood by teaching us a valuable lesson about friendship between actresses of a certain age.

Hollywood is also bizarrely disingenuous, painting progress as a thing that arrives magically if one is determined enough, and racial and gender hegemony as weak-willed forces that can be toppled if one is willing to stand one's ground. The actual pioneers become footnotes or, worse, failures whose inability to accomplish the change illustrated by the Hollywood team must stem from a lack of fortitude or confidence, or at least a lack of a Ryan Murphy-esque fairy godfather. Read about Anna May Wong's story or Rock Hudson's lifetime in the closet or Hattie McDaniel's professional journey. This is a sweet rewrite, but indisputably more hollow than the real thing. I'd add that there's a peculiar randomness to how the series alters history, like having Ernest Borgnine presenting at the 1948 Oscars when the real Ernest Borgnine had zero credits at that point.

I hope I've established some sort of baseline for whether the treatment of history and progress in Hollywood — the arc of the moral universe becomes much shorter if you can skip straight to justice — is likely to bug you, because if you're unlikely to be bothered, there's a lot to enjoy here.

The production values, top to bottom, are lovely. Production designer Matthew Flood Ferguson puts equal affection into studio backlots and low-rent efficiency apartments, and costume designers Lou Eyrich and Sarah Evelyn evoke period glamour for all occasions and finances. Cinematography Simon Dennis shoots large chunks in a pristine black-and-white that's far prettier than any 1947 movie of a comparable budget could have achieved.

The performances are mostly quite good. Jeremy Pope is a dynamic discovery, or will be a discovery for anybody who hasn't seen his Tony-nominated theater work. He easily upstages Corenswet, amiable and wooden in the way the part demands, and Picking, whose transforming of Rock Hudson into a comic Lina Lamont type is fun but limited. Harrier looks the part of a breathtaking ingenue, but there's not much to Camille's character development, and I think I found myself more appreciative of Samara Weaving as an actress forced to overcome Hollywood's prejudice against … nepotism?

The veteran side of the cast is even better. LuPone is fierce and funny, Mantello soulful and heartbreaking, and Taylor brassy and empathetic. There's a brief window when Parsons' Sheldon Cooper mannerisms are distracting, but he's been given such unapologetically spicy dialogue that you get past that hang-up in a hurry, and Parsons' instinctive decency and the character's instinctive awfulness create a nice friction. Kudos also to Reiner, Krusiec and Mira Sorvino, even if Sorvino's ties to the Harvey Weinstein scandal as one of his many accusers are a reminder of how absurd it is to expect Hollywood to be capable of policing itself.

The first show of Murphy's new Netflix deal is atypically efficient, a mere seven episodes, with only two of those episodes running longer than an hour. Turning a moment of discouraging societal regression into something this peppy and energetic, Hollywood offers medicine that's mostly placebo, and it goes down easy.

Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, Jim Parsons, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Patti LuPone, Jake Picking, Joe Mantello
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan
Premieres Friday, May 1 (Netflix)