Updated: Sep 19, 2020
In an early episode of Netflix's miniseries Hollywood, director Raymond Ainsely (Darren Criss) tells studio exec Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), "movies don't just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be". Reframing the story of the film industry through the lens of those most likely to be left out of the original cut, Hollywood, from writer/producer Ryan Murphy, attempts to tackle this idea. While Hollywood presents a romanticized and beautiful looking version of Tinseltown during its Golden Age, you find a vein, hollow, and overly convoluted story uncertain of what it is trying to say when you dig beneath the surface.
Hollywood follows the lives of aspiring actors and filmmakers as they try to make their mark in the industry, no matter what the cost. As the series opens, we meet married veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet), an actor who turns tricks at Ernie West's (Dylan McDermott) service shop while waiting for his big break. Joining Jack is fellow pump jockey Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a closeted black screenwriter who is waiting to hear back about his script, Peg. Peg is inspired by a real-life actress who committed suicide after jumping off the Hollywood sign. Ace Studios has its eye on Peg and thinks it could be a big success. Their lives are changed forever after a chance encounter with two clients in Dreamland provides new opportunities to grow their careers. Jack services a casting agent from Ace Studios who introduces him to studio executive Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor). Meanwhile, Archie starts dating his client and wannabe actor Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), who later changes his name to Rock Hudson at the behest of his agent. These seemingly independent events intertwine when Raymond Ainsley expresses an interest in producing Peg for the big screen. Raymond, a half-Filipino American, hopes the success of Peg will allow him to make more movies that break Hollywood boundaries. He also hopes to help his up and coming actress girlfriend, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), find more prominent roles typicality withheld from black actresses.
Jack, Rock, and Camille eventually land roles on Meg, a rewritten version of Peg that allows Camille to star as the titular character. From here, the show shifts its focus to making a hit movie with a black female lead performing a script written by a black man that is produced and financed by a female-led studio.
The shift in narrative is really where the show starts to lose its way as Murphy and the company slowly move away from turning tricks to turning Hollywood's overly conservative nature on its head. While both premises would be interesting to explore individually, they don't work well when paired together, perhaps representing the biggest misstep of Hollywood as it tries to stuff too much plot into seven episodes to create a cohesive story. By the end of the series, I wasn't clear on what Hollywood was trying to say. Is the show about doing whatever it takes to make it? Is it about highlighting the lack of representation in Hollywood, an issue that persists to this day? Is it about the pitfalls of gaining power, which, if unchecked, can pave way the way for abuse? Is it a criticism of the system that has advantaged only certain people?
Hollywood touches on all of these themes at some point but never fully commits to any one of them. Murphy has one foot in the door and one foot out, resulting in an overstuffed story without a focused thematic narrative. There was a real missed opportunity here by Murphy and his team. Hollywood could have been the perfect rebuke to a system that has historically excluded people of color and condoned abuse. By not fully committing to this, the show robs itself of the opportunity to say anything meaningful. I found it hard not to compare Hollywood to Watchmen, another miniseries released within the last year that dug its heels into the topic of race. Watchmen succeeded because of its clear point of view that wove elements of racial themes throughout each of its episodes.
Hollywood, on the other hand, provides plenty of exposition about race without the meaningful story elements to build upon that exposition. It's a shame too, as Archie and Rock's arcs were the most intriguing of the show. Murphy should have spent more time developing these characters instead of wasting time on others, such as Jack. Jack represented a generic archetype that could have been excluded from the series all together without missing a beat. He is a good looking guy who makes it Hollywood despite having no talent. In a lot of ways, Jack is a microcosm of the show itself, all looks, no substance. None of this matters though, as everyone gets what they want no matter how they got there. It turns out the cost for standing up for what was right ends up being the same cost as being a delinquent to society, a big fat zero. Archie received constant warning of the risk the studio is taking through the series by backing him. Archie also is warned not to reveal his sexuality as it would prevent other studios from hiring him. Of course, the studio stands behind him, even as he opens up about his relationship with Rock. Other than one incident with the KKK and journalists refusing to speak with him on the Oscars red carpet, Archie doesn't face much backlash for being black or gay. Instead, Ace Studios doubles down on Archie by giving him a large contract to write whatever he wants.
Similarly, Jack is cheating on his wife throughout the series. In fairness to his story, Jack at least exhibits consternation about his action throughout the first few episodes. But he isn't really in love. And it turns out, neither is she. His wife falls in love with another man who she runs off to Ohio with, taking their child. There are no consequences for Jack's actions, and he never has to confront the realities of his mistakes. Instead, he got out of a loveless marriage scot-free, doesn't have to help raise his child, and gets to live out his dreams as a successful actor.
Probably the most egregious of all, though, is Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons). Henry is a prominent agent in Hollywood, a man who can make or break careers. He also has a penchant for sexually abusing his clients.
Henry is as an allegory for the culture of abuse Hollywood has casually swept under the rug for years. Henry's story, while provocative, fails to adequately addresses issues of sexual harassment. Instead of answering for his misdeeds, Henry is allowed back at Ace Studios after attending rehab to continue working as a producer. He even offers Rock, a frequent subject of his abuse, a role in his next movie. Of course, the movie was written by Rock's boyfriend Archie and directed by by good friend Ainsley. It seems inevitable he would join the film, rendering Henry's gesture to feel empty.
I understand Murphy was trying to illustrate the emotional and mental trauma caused by hiding one's true self; however, there are better ways to underscore these thematic elements throughout the story. Quite honestly, this feels like a blatant disregard for everyone who has spoken out in the last few years about the rampant abuse in Hollywood and is one of the biggest misgivings I have with the whole show. Perhaps this message would have faired better if Wilson illustrated any redeemable qualities up to this point. But he hadn't, so the sudden shift character feels unearned.
As a whole, Hollywood misses the mark. Despite some beautiful scenery and witty dialogue, the show lacks a clear and cohesive narrative. It tackles important cultural topics, such as race, gender, and sexuality without actually having anything meaningful to say about them.
"And to everybody listening," Archie says as he accepts his Academy Award for Meg's script, " your story is important. Don't go thinking otherwise, don't let your story go untold". I feel this is the ultimate message that Murphy and Co were striving for when constructing the series narrative. Unfortunately, the producers and writers fail to fully commit to the story, making it inevitably feel unimportant. It was a story that doesn't deserve to be told, at least not as is.