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The Diminishing Returns of Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ Fantasy

The super-producer’s latest Netflix series imagines a movie business that solved its representation issues in the 1940s. But crucially, it refuses to grapple with the ugliness that can sometimes coexist with great art.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Midway through Hollywood, a writer and a studio executive are debating the final scene of their current project. It’s the late 1940s, and the fictional Ace Pictures has green-lit a feature based on the life of Peg Entwistle, the young actress who jumped to her death from the “H” in the Hollywood sign—then “Hollywoodland”—in 1932. Except the studio has taken a gamble, changed the character’s name to Meg Ennis, and cast a black actress, contract player Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), in the role. With that tweak in mind, production head Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) suggests revising Meg’s fate, having her climb down from the sign into the arms of her love interest, tested but not broken. The director, naturally, protests. “It’s a better ending,” the writer argues with a smile.

Is it, though?

In cocreator Ryan Murphy’s hammer-subtle way, what these above-the-line types are doing with Peg Entwistle is a stand-in for what Murphy and his collaborators are doing with the entire postwar entertainment industry: filling it with queer, nonwhite, and female faces who get their fairy-tale endings, accuracy be damned. For his second outing with Netflix, Murphy has delivered a show more focused than The Politician, a disappointing collage of warmed-over Murphy clichés and ripped-from-the-headlines story points. But just because Hollywood knows what it wants to do doesn’t mean it succeeds in doing it.

Murphy appears to have gone soft in his mid-to-late career. After introducing high camp to the vernacular of broadcast and prestige TV alike, the power producer’s final project for FX was Pose, an ensemble drama about the New York ballroom scene in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Pose has some of the bitchiness the man behind Mary Cherry and Sue Sylvester is known for, much of it concentrated in the form of snooty, imperious house mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson). But it’s also sweet to the point of flirting with the saccharine, a deeply sincere celebration of marginalized people and their chosen family. Featuring a cast of largely queer and trans actors of color, it’s the kind of show that makes more of a statement in its existence than it does in its storytelling.

Hollywood graduates from finding joy in the dark recesses of America’s past to rigging up some artificial lights. Cocreated by Murphy with longtime collaborator Ian Brennan and executive-produced by Pose’s Janet Mock, who also directs, Hollywood tracks a group of showbiz aspirants who never would have succeeded in the studio system as it actually was—so Murphy and Company simply invent an alternate timeline that allows them to thrive. The opening credits set the tone: The series regulars climb the Hollywood sign, Entwistle-style, but instead of falling, they help each other reach the summit, looking out over the dawn of a new day in the city simply known as, reverentially and scornfully, “this town.” People help people, everybody wins. Such frictionless camaraderie comes to define the show.

Like many Murphy projects, Hollywood launches better than it lands. A bizarrely paced seven-episode season begins with a two-part premiere, making Hollywood more than a quarter wind-up. But the world introduced by those early chapters is an intriguing one. Aspiring actor Jack Costello (David Corenswet) finds himself working at a male escort service disguised as a gas station alongside screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). Modeled after Scotty Bowers, their pimp Ernie (Dylan McDermott) instructs them to, uh, service any clientele who drop the code word “Dreamland,” including Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the wife of Ace Pictures’ chief executive.

There’s a great deal of fun to be had in the parallels between the movie business and its shadier cousins in prostitution and porn. The analogy is neither original nor especially refined—whether the clothes are on or off, everyone’s selling something!—but even at his best, we go to Ryan Murphy for flair and outrageousness, not their opposites. “If you won’t go into that shed and have some fun with national treasure Cole Porter,” Ernie yells at the resolutely heterosexual Jack, “you better find me somebody who can!” The cheerful blasphemy of splicing real-life historical figures with fictional sex workers has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that bodes well for an ahistorical romp.

Soon, however, Jack and Archie have graduated from the station to the studio lot, a transition that goes alarmingly poorly for a show called Hollywood. Jack joins Camille and Amberg scion Claire (Samara Weaving) in Ace’s in-house retinue, coached by mother hen Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor); Archie’s Entwistle screenplay is assigned to director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), who casts Jack, Claire, and his girlfriend Camille as the lead. Getting a green light for movie written by a black, gay man and starring a black woman in an interracial relationship would’ve been literally impossible in the Hays Code era, but Hollywood makes it surprisingly seamless. The risk-averse Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) has a heart attack, so Avis gets put in charge and gives Meg the go-ahead. A story about Jack’s time at the gas station is in the works, but it’s killed before it can make it to print. Meg is met with protests but becomes a monster hit anyway; in no time at all, we’re at the Academy Awards.

This suspicious ease carries over to Hollywood’s interpersonal conflict, of which there’s almost none. Claire auditions for the role of Meg, but the character introduced to us as a vain and spoiled rich girl is positively gracious when Camille gets the role. Jack is trapped in a loveless marriage, but his wife conveniently falls for someone else and leaves him to pursue his dreams in peace. No wonder the season is so short—there’s hardly any resistance to the rising tide that lifts all characters’ boats. The ease is part of the fantasy, but it also saps the show of much-needed tension.

Porter is just the first of many real-life figures to cross paths with the cast and crew of Meg: George Cukor, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, and Ernest Borgnine all have brief cameos, plus non-Tinseltown presences like Eleanor Roosevelt. Others have more substantive parts to play. Queen Latifah portrays Hattie McDaniel, who becomes a mentor of sorts to Camille; Michelle Krusiec’s Anna May Wong is recruited for Meg by Raymond, who desperately wants to make up for her shameful exclusion from 1937’s The Good Earth, which won Luise Rainer an Oscar for acting in yellowface. (Like Criss, Raymond is half-Filipino but passes for white, a privilege Wong reminds him she doesn’t share.) Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a full-blown protagonist, dating Archie and earning a bit part in Meg. Hollywood’s final flourish is to give the actor, who died of complications from AIDS in 1985 after spending his life in the closet, what his own biography never could: a life where his stardom and selfhood could happily coexist.

Hollywood’s reliance on such stars reveals a fundamental contradiction. Murphy is clearly infatuated with classic Hollywood, putting his sumptuous Netflix budget toward a meticulous re-creation of the era he loves. He’s also aware of how homogenous and unjust the world that produced his influences really was. So he attempts to have it both ways, forcibly rewriting the past until it adheres to modern-day standards of diversity and representation. But there’s a self-serving slant to this reversal, not to mention a self-flattering one. Rather than grapple with the ugliness that can coexist with great art, Hollywood simply replaces it with something more palatable.

There’s also an unearned triumphalism to presenting 2020 values as the solution to the ills of the 1940s. Murphy has done a tremendous amount to grant opportunities to underrepresented groups in front of and behind the camera, but there’s still too much to be done in present-day Hollywood to position its mores as a kind of social panacea. (Characters literally talk like time travelers, tossing around phrases like “people of color” that didn’t come into wider use until decades later.) Even Hollywood is hardly as transgressive in its casting as Pose, still deploying a straight white male lead as an entry point into its wide-ranging ensemble.

The guiding philosophy of Hollywood is moral instruction. Meg Ennis can’t jump off the Hollywood sign because it would send a discouraging message to black girls everywhere; when Camille, Archie, and Anna May Wong pick up their counterfactual Oscars, their speeches are spliced together with laypeople who look like them listening on the radio. The implication is that uplift and nuance are a binary choice, an attitude as simplistic as Ace’s crass insistence that all audiences want is easy entertainment. It’s a depressing and oppressive point of view, one that argues art should be a series of morality plays where nothing bad ever happens, lest audiences think the movies have anything to say about real life.

Worst of all, this ethos is at odds with Murphy’s most enjoyable work, which treats the polite bounds of good taste as just another norm to be broken. My favorite historical portrait in Hollywood is that of Rock Hudson’s infamous agent Henry Willson, played by a Jim Parsons now freshly liberated from a decade on The Big Bang Theory. Parsons revels in Willson’s campy villainy, verbally abusing and sexually coercing his clients while occasionally clad in a caftan. It’s a pretty rude impersonation, and even Willson gets his awkwardly shoehorned redemption arc. Still, Parsons’s is the one performance that tries to be sensational before being educational. His Hollywood just seems more fun.