The second of Ryan Murphy’s series on Netflix following his mega-bucks deal and the premiere of The Politician a few months ago, Hollywood arrives with an all-star cast, a lot of hype and a plethora of mixed reviews.
An alternate-history of a show, the series follows the fortunes of the fictional Ace Studios and the production of the film Meg and the impact of a film with a diverse crew and a leading actress who is African-American on the film industry and posits the notion that if such a thing had happened during the Golden Era of Hollywood, diversity might have been achieved sooner rather than later.
How you react to Hollywood depends on several things; it depends on how you feel about Murphy himself and his impact on the television industry over the last decade, his Netflix deal and the show’s storyline that takes a revisionist approach to history while patting itself on the bat while doing so.
Many of the reviews that have greeted Hollywood have been negative to say the least (some of the reviews that greeted The Politician were also somewhat mixed) but the truth is, it offers a glossy piece of entertainment that is hard to resist. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t got problems, because it does, but it’s so fast paced and entertaining in the manner that Murphy does so well that it’s hard not to get swept along with it.
The problem that the series has is that it’s presenting its scenario as a definitive statement on how things would have been different in the American film industry if this was the course someone had the balls to take and that might be a bit much, and also a touch naïve, for the series to pull off.
The scripts from Murphy, co-creator Ian Brennan and frequent collaborators Janet Mock and Reilly Smith are well intentioned, pacey and at time very fun; there’s a jazzy score from Nathan Barr, moments when characters talk quickly in a manner befitting a screwball comedy, and many of the films of the era, while no expense has clearly been spared in recreating Hollywood of the period, all the while hitting you with stories and themes that run concurrent to today’s climate.
It’s when the series tries to hold a serious mirror up to the real world that sometimes the tones do become a little jarring. You watch that deliriously brilliant credit sequence that opens every episode of our lead characters climbing to the top of the Hollywood sign and it’s hard not to get swept away by the fun nature of it, but when the episodes deal with sexual assault, and a lot of it doled out toward its fictionalised version of Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) by his agent Henry Willson (a skin crawling performance from Jim Parsons), sometimes it feels as if there are two versions of the show competing with each other to make it to the screen.
Parsons takes that aloof superiority that he brought to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory and channels it into something more disturbing throughout Hollywood, but the series I so intent in wanting to also have a semblance of being a fairy tale with its ‘what if’ story that it seems totally fine with letting Willson off the hook for some of his terrible actions.
Sure enough, one of the most powerful scenes in the entire series comes in the final episode when Hudson proclaims that he cannot forgive Willson because he is still traumatised by what Willson did to him, and it is undeniably powerful, with superlative performances from both Pickings and Parsons, but hey, it’s okay because Willson is going to produce the first gay romance movie in Hollywood history so all is forgiven it seems.
It’s this jarring approach that sometimes can threaten to be the undoing of Hollywood…and yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the things I liked about it because honestly, the things I liked about it I adored.
The cast consisting of Patti LuPone, Laura Harrier, Jeremy Pope, Samara Weaving, Holland Taylor, Joe Mantello, David Corenswet, Darren Criss and Dylan McDermott, inhabit their roles wonderfully. Yes, even it’s ‘empowered Hollywood players making the world a better place’ theme might take some chewing, but Murphy, Brennan, Mock and Smith do such a good job of giving weight to themes such as supressed sexuality, racism, unrequited love and life’s opportunities lost that it’s hard not to get swept along by Hollywood when it does things right.
Murphy might be a Marmite type of television writer and producer, with projects that can run the gamut of truly brilliant to the not so brilliant, but when the elements work, his work flourishes magnificently. Admittedly Hollywood isn’t as great as Pose (and a lot of what makes Pose work is down to co-creator Steven Canals as much as Murphy it has to be said), but Hollywood aims for the stars and I love it for trying hard even if doesn’t quite stick the landing or convinces you totally of its central thesis.
Hollywood’s victory lap for its characters in the final episode comes with the suggestion that if a film like Meg with its diverse cast and crew had been made and achieved that level of success, it would have changed things for the better, and yet that feels very naïve when the victories of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002 and Kathryn Bigelow’s win for Best Director in 2010 facilitated little to no change to the extent that we are still campaigning and fighting for more racial and gender equality at the ceremony.
Despite this, as a glossy piece of escapist fun, Hollywood works for the most part on that level. Its intentions are pure, and its heart is in the right place and if the reviews put you off, don’t let them, because this is a fun seven hours. It never outstays its welcome and when the fun can shine through, it’s massively entertaining.
Flawed for sure, but it’s also worth watching.
Hollywood is now available to stream on Netflix.