Review: Hollywood – Season 1 (2020)

Hollywood: Season 1. Created by Ryan Murphy & Ian Brennan. Netflix, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

           Hollywood is one of those rare series that is every bit as delightful as it is maddening. For every moment that takes your breath away, there is another that will leave you feeling flabbergasted. On the surface, we have our usual Ryan Murphy icons: Veteran actresses in fabulous gowns, a chorus line of hot boys, and an absolute aversion to subtlety. On closer inspection, though, we have, well, all of those things, but also the showrunner’s most hopeful, sincere, and frustrating series yet.  

            Netflix’s new series (I refuse to call anything a “miniseries” anymore, see: Big Little Lies), centers around the lives of several young artists who dream of making it big in Hollywood, predominately portrayed by yet another assemblage of Ryan Murphy boy toys. The de facto protagonist of the ensemble is Jack Castello (played by the impossibly gorgeous David Corenswet), a white World War II veteran who dreams of being a Hollywood actor, even though he does not know how to act. The other members of the young ensemble include Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a black, gay aspiring screenwriter, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a black actress-in-training, Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), a fictionalized version of the closeted actor, Claire Wood (Margot Robbie impersonator Samara Weaving), an aspiring actress and daughter of the studio head, and Raymond Ainsley (Ryan Murphy Golden Boi Darren Criss), the half-Filipino boyfriend of Camille and aspiring director. Over the course of the series, the young dreamers come together to create the film Meg, a daring Hollywood love story starring the first black romantic lead. Along the way, they are faced with the various barriers put in place by the Hollywood system that enforce a white, heteronormative cinema.

            The principle circle of characters bring us to the show’s first puzzle: if your series is all about the marginalized overcoming systemic barriers in order to change the landscape of cinema, why is the protagonist a straight white guy? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Jack’s character, especially in the early episodes when he has to negotiate his role as husband and sex worker, but was he even necessary to the series’ primary objective? Couldn’t we have done the exact same thematic work without him? If Camille and Archie would have been the primary focus, wouldn’t we have reached the same ending?

            The other issue relating to the young ensemble has to do with the performances themselves. While all of the actors do a fine job in their respective roles, there is a particular disconnect that occurs whenever the actors have to act like they’re acting. Camille’s entire trajectory in the series is dependent on her giving the best screen test of all time. When the scene comes, Camille’s performance is, well, good. The same can be said for Jack’s screen test. It’s not that Harrier or Corenswet are poor performers, but to really prove their exceptionality, you need to give a performance that convinces the audience every bit as much as it convinces the characters. Remember in Burlesque (no, wait, stay with me) where Christina Aguilera’s character saves the club because she’s the best singer? Well, that only works when the singer actually is Christina Aguilera. In the end, the actors acting as actors only semi-works because Patti LuPone is so convincingly wowed by them.

            This brings us to the next unresolvable component of Hollywood, which relates to the seasoned cast. Alongside the journeys of the young crew, we follow Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone, True Queen™), the wife of the head of Ace Studios (played expertly by Rob Reiner), as she conflictingly steers the production of Meg. Her primary council is comprised of Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), a closeted studio executive, and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor), mentor to the contract actors at Ace. All three actors are fabulous in their roles. LuPone’s Avis is, undoubtedly, the heart of the show. Her journey from unfulfilled wife to champion of diversity is wonderfully crafted. The issue here is that the three executives are the only reason Meg is produced, which means they are the only reason that Hollwyood moves forward, which means that three rich white saviors are the masterminds behind change.

            On the opposing side of the Ace Studios gang is Henry Wilson. Oh, boy. Henry Wilson is an absolute monster. Entering the series as Rock Hudson’s smarmy agent, he preys on young men, coercing his talent into various sexual exploits. Because we can’t really give a specific face to Hollywood’s oppressive system, Wilson becomes the show’s villain, both a product and reinforcer of unethical sexual currency. However, the show chooses to do something, dare I say, Kevin Spacey-esque, and blame his behavior on a life of internalized hate. In the back half of the season, Wilson goes through a redemption arc that, while it does provide Jim Parsons a showcase for his dramatic acting, is downright ignorant.

            It’s impossible to fully examine the series without discussing the final bit of bonkersosity (flashback to my Tiger King review, am I right, my tens of readers?), the finale.

SPOILERS BELOW, GIRL

            Quite easily the most frustrating, and yet somehow the most magical, element of the show is the Oscars ceremony at the end of the series. The Oscars are the absolute epitome of fool’s gold. It’s easy to get swept up in the glamor—I know I do every year—but they’re not nearly as significant as Hollywood would have you believe. Merit and artistry are only fractions of the equation when the Oscars nominate. Please remember that every nominee must campaign for their spot on the ballot. This process, of course, favors the privileged and historically leaves marginalized talent in front of and behind the camera off the ballot. For that reason, when assessing the significance of black and queer cinema, the Oscars are one of the last places to explore. Hollywood, while well-intentioned, argues that the Oscars signal change and represent the heights of filmic achievement. When Meg sweeps the awards, we are supposed to believe our marginalized leads have achieved the pinnacle of success in their art. In the world of the series, Meg’s Oscar winseffectively solve racism.

SPOILERS OVER, GIRL

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Is it just me, or would Golden Tip Gas make an excellent spin-off series? Just me? Okay.
  • True Queen™ Queen Latifah’s appearance as Hattie McDaniel is fascinating for so many reasons, I could write an entire article about it.
  • Paget Brewster’s Tallulah Bankhead is what dreams are made of.
  • Wait. Why wasn’t Anna May Wong in this more?
  • I hope Buzzfeed makes a quiz where you find out which one of David Corenswet’s dimples you are.

The Final Tea

            Hollywood’s intentions are, obviously, earnest and noble. The series rewrites cinema history in order to demonstrate the progressive potential of the screen. The non-fiction elements historicize the Golden Age setting, while the fantasy brings in contemporary context to underline the show’s themes. The performances, especially from the veteran cast, are wonderful, and the production design is fabulous. Overall, I enjoyed the series far more than it may sound from the above review. Perhaps the reason I am left so baffled is because I absolutely adored the show’s glitz and glamour, but cannot shake the misguided self-congratulatory tone of the series. You know, just like the Oscars.

GRADE: B+

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