Ryan Murphy’s latest project, Hollywood, concentrates on the infamous movie industry town in the post-WWII 1940s. But this isn’t a straight up version of what happened back then. Instead, Murphy takes a detour and imagines “what if”. What if a black woman could have been the lead in a major motion picture? What if a woman ran the studio? Or what if a gay man was able to come out and still have a career?
A variety of characters bring this vision to life. Jack Costello (David Corenswet) is an actor who dreams of making it big in the movies. Unfortunately, he can’t get work and needs to support his family. That leads him to Ernie (Dylan McDermott) a colorful character who runs a gas station that is front for a prostitution ring. The attendants are all hot guys who fulfill the needs of customers looking to go to “Dreamland”. Jack’s first client is Avis (Patti Lupone), a former actress who is neglected by her brash studio boss husband, Ace (Rob Reiner). We also meet longtime Ace Studio executives Dick (Joe Mantello) and Ellen (Holland Taylor). Then there’s black aspiring ingenue Camille (Laura Harrier), her Filipino director boyfriend Raymond (Darren Criss), and Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter. The show also includes real people from the era. Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) was an Asian actress who never got the chance to break out of the stereotypical roles Hollywood put her in. Murphy seeks to rectify that. Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) was one of the slimiest talent managers in town. He sexually abused his clients, young men who trusted him with their careers. Parsons is fantastic at playing this reptilian character. Henry’s most famous client was debonair matinee idol Rock Hudson (Jake Picking). I’m a big Hudson fan, but this particular portrayal is horrible. He’s written as a clueless buffoon, stumbling in every scene. It’s a weird choice.
After the first few episodes, the new reality begins. Ace has a heart attack and is sidelined in the hospital. This allows Avis to step in and run the studio. She greenlights Meg, a film directed by Raymond, written by Archie, and starring Camille. None of these people would have been able to reach these goals in the actual 1940s, but in Murphy’s world all of the “others” can finally win. It’s an exciting concept to push aside the old straight white men and let someone else have the power. The problem I found, though, was the execution. Murphy hits us over the head with how monumental these fictional events would have been. Think of what it would have meant to a little black girl to see Camille on the big screen. And then he cuts to that girl. The same thing is done with a black gay man and an Asian family reacting to Archie and Anna’s successes. He doesn’t just show us, but also continually puts it in the dialogue. You can only hear people go on and on about their previously unattainable dreams before it begins to sound trite. I get it, this is a big deal. The other thing is that these triumphs are reached with very little pushback. It comes too easy, eliminating any tension in the plot.
On the plus side, the production is gorgeous. Murphy and crew meticulously recreate the decade through the sets, costumes, and music. Lupone’s hats deserve their own special Emmy. The younger actors are very charismatic, particularly Costello and Pope. I also liked the inclusion of the veteran actors who get to do a lot of heavy lifting. Seeing Mantello, Holland, McDermott, and Lupone in scenes together is captivating. I only wish that the story matched the strength of the other elements in the series.