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TV review: ‘Hollywood’ offers a hopeful story but is too fantastical to be realistic drama

(Courtesy of Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

"Hollywood"

Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan

Netflix

May 1

By Jordan Wilson

May 4, 2020 2:56 p.m.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Hollywood made Ryan Murphy, so Murphy went and made “Hollywood” right back.

Murphy, producer and creator of myriad series of episodic television from “Glee” to “American Crime Story” developed the recently released miniseries with Netflix along with producer Ian Brennan. Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, “Hollywood” follows a group of young hopefuls struggling to make careers for themselves in the entertainment industry. With “Pose” producer helming the show as well, the limited series is chock-full of LGBTQ+ characters of myriad races and ages – a refreshing divergence from the usual media portrayal of the 1940s.

“Hollywood” is an optimistic portrayal of what the entertainment industry might have looked like if a progressive infusion of talent had started producing movies in the late 1940s. The contemporary talent used in the series is both robust and enormous, featuring the likes of film and television veterans from Murphy’s other projects, but it’s the fresh actors and actresses who really elevate the mini-series.

The show cheekily begins with burgeoning actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet) obtaining a job at a full-service gas station in the middle of Los Angeles – only it’s quickly revealed the station also provides sexual services for customers with the right password. Though Jack shies away from serving male customers, fellow gas-man and aspiring screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is more than happy to do so, resulting in a relationship with another young Hollywood hopeful, Rock Hudson (Jake Picking).

[Related: Movie review: ‘The Half of It’ offers fresh perspective on what a teenage rom-com can be]

Corenswet and Pope masterfully capture their characters’ blind naivety as they talk about their Hollywood dreams, regarding the area with a hopeful gleam in their eyes. All these fresh faces in the series add to the plausibility of their circumstances because, much like their characters, the actors are just dipping their toes into the industry.

However, Hudson in real life was a famous Hollywood heartthrob whose sexuality was called into question long before the actor died from AIDS-related complications in 1985. “Hollywood” portrays Hudson as a very green talent who gets taken advantage of by talent agent Henry Willson in an astounding portrayal by “The Big Bang Theory” alum Jim Parsons.

In their first meeting, Willson assures Hudson he wants to make him a star, requesting only sexual favors and 10% of his earnings in exchange. Those who are locked into thinking of Parsons as the socially awkward Sheldon will see his true range through the cunning and shrewd industry middle-man Willson, who thinks nothing of sexually blackmailing a young actor.

The theme of sexuality as capital makes itself exceedingly plain in the first half of the series. The young actors are portrayed as having to offer sexual favors in order to advance their careers, as in both Hudson and Castello’s cases, but the layers of intrigue and bribery begin to peel away when the central plot of the series emerges.

By the latter half of “Hollywood,” the principal players become involved in the Ace Studios production of a fictional film called “Peg.” Suddenly the three boys who worked at a gas station-turned-brothel are involved in an enormous studio production with a budget to match. This is the first big professional development of the series – after Jack, Archie and Rock exploit their bodies for professional advantage, each is rewarded with near-instant stardom. With their stardom, the three are able to obtain the Broadway musical version of the Hollywood Dream, and it’s believable until it becomes belligerently up-beat

When the bigger-than-life studio mogul Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) falls into a coma, his wife Avis (Patti LuPone) and studio executive Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) take over the project. They change the title to “Meg,” make the story about a young woman of color, cast the director’s girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) as the lead and wait for the inevitable controversy. Crosses quickly burn on front lawns, protesters picket theaters and death threats are regularly called in. Not to mention the studio faces certain financial ruin for trying to do something as progressive in 1948 as producing a film with a nonmale, nonwhite lead.

[Related: TV review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ special provides warmth, laughter in face of COVID-19]

Just as the plot began to pick up the pace, however, “Hollywood” proves to be a Murphy-esque musical without any musical numbers. Avis, Dick and other studio workers remain stalwart about the film’s production, facing one problem after another with nauseating positivity.

In the face of every challenge in every act of every episode, the solution proved to be a character delivering a dramatic soliloquy, and the rest of the cast carrying on with production, now more properly motivated. It’s as if there were a per-episode monologue minimum, a standardized schedule of verbal motivation where characters constantly confess their desires and feelings. But the overly dramatic musical – robbed of its music – quickly turns into a soap opera.

By the end of the seven-episode, 347-minute soap it’s clear Murphy was trying to find a moment in the history of the film business ripe for untapped progressive opportunity and rewrite it himself. But what at first feels like a fun and interesting look at post-war Hollywood turns into dreamscape and saccharine fantasy, and the problems the studio encounters – from internal resistance to death threats – are often easily overcome.

In the end, however, “Hollywood” is a hopeful story, remaining too fantastical to be considered realistic drama. It is, in essence, a long and soapy homage to a time and place that never existed, but the idea of which is endearing. If anything, it can serve as an inspirational guidepost to future leaders of the entertainment industry, as an artistic statement for inclusivity and equality regardless of social convention. But aspirations are only such because they have not yet been achieved.

By the finale, the title has become achingly appropriate – “Hollywood” remains forever in quotes as the fantastical idea of the area transcends its harsh realities.

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Jordan Wilson
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