“Movies don’t just show us how the world is — they show us how it can be,” director Raymond Ansley (Darren Criss) argues in the new Netflix miniseries Hollywood. This isn’t just his mission statement, but that of Hollywood’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan. The seven-episode tale is equal parts love letter to the films of the Forties and fantasy about how much more inclusive showbiz could have been back then — and how different the real world might have been as a result.
We begin in postwar L.A., with Army veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet) desperate to break into the movies by any means necessary — even working as an escort out of a gas station managed by mustachioed pimp Ernie (Dylan McDermott). “I just want to do something big, you know?” Jack insists.
Big is what Hollywood aspires to as well. Jack is a straight white guy, but soon we’ve gotten to know Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay, black aspiring screenwriter; Raymond, a half-Filipino director dating black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier); Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), a silent movie star who was “a little Jewy” to make it in talkies; and an awkward, young Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), just coming to grips with his own sexuality. These outcasts and has-beens will come together (along with a pair of aging studio execs played with verve by Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor) to attempt to make a mainstream film with a black lead and screenwriter at a time when actors of color were still marginalized playing white people’s servants.
The whole thing feels like a Douglas Sirk melodrama (the kind Hudson would become famous for a few years later) crossbred with one of those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney films where putting on a show in the barn would fix everything, with a touch of Inglourious Basterds in how it attempts to rewrite history for the better. Hollywood is lurid and frequently works its characters into tears. But the show also wears its heart on its sleeve about how it wants the best for its own version of reality.
That mashup of tones has been Murphy’s stock-in-trade since he arrived in the business with as much optimism and ambition as a Raymond or an Archie; in some projects, nothing fits together, while in others, like this, the whole is greater than the mismatched parts. At times, Hollywood feels like a really lavish prequel to Murphy and Brennan’s Glee — nobody bursts into song, but the air of unapologetic sincerity is similar. (And as Hudson’s cruel, closeted manager Henry, Jim Parsons could easily be Sue Sylvester’s favorite uncle.)
Sincere is the key in which Murphy’s shows are most potent. His great FX drama Pose is similarly generous toward its own marginalized heroes and heroines, while his and Brennan’s first Netflix show, the satiric The Politician, didn’t work at all because it seemed contemptuous of everyone onscreen.
Hollywood can, in some scenes, come across as too arch, or like cosplay — of the younger actors, Pope and Corenswet are the two who most convincingly evoke the period. And even its revisionist version of that time skips some necessary steps. For example, everyone makes a big deal about how controversial it will be for a movie like this to star an actor of color, yet no one is concerned about the interracial relationship at the center of the film’s story.
But Murphy has always been better at big ideas than small details, and the sentimentality of the piece, coupled with the potency of many of the performances, after a while becomes infectious, making Hollywood’s weak spots easy to forgive. Eventually, the miniseries becomes a bit too self-congratulatory for its own good, even if its intentions are admirable. There’s talk throughout the series about how movies have the power to turn dreams into reality. (Heck, the most inspiring speech in the whole thing is delivered by the gas-station pimp!) Ultimately, Hollywood errs on the side of dreaming, but who doesn’t like to dream about a better world than the one we have?
Netflix releases the whole season of Hollywood on May 1st. I’ve seen all seven episodes.