The familiar notes of Glen Miller’s iconic “In The Mood,” drift out of the speakers of my computer, and for a brief moment, I think to myself that this is going to be just another mediocre story about the golden age of the movie-making industry. However, what we’re given instead is an intoxicating remix of the classic big band song, and the accompanying trailer promises the same: a remix. “Hollywood,” the latest newcomer to Netflix’s impressive lineup of original series, boasts a star-studded cast and a story about what might have happened if Old Hollywood had taken more chances on diversity. It’s glitzy, glamorous and oftentimes overwhelming, and it relies on the skills of its actors to carry a script that feels weighted and a bit cheesy, even by Old Hollywood standards.
Based very loosely on the recollections of ex-marine Scott Bowers, who ran a gas station in 1940’s Los Angeles, Ryan Murphy’s latest television project for Netflix asks what if our history got a rewrite. At first, “Hollywood” highlights the stories of marginalized artists, reminding viewers that the road to the American Dream isn’t paved for just anyone. However, as the show goes on, it also tries to push the message that the mere words of a few can make a dramatic difference in society. It’s a good message, but in the context of 1940’s Hollywood, it’s strained and far-fetched, especially in a world where discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality and more are still all too present today.
Starring as wannabe actor Jack Costello is David Corenswet, fresh off his role as tragic love interest River on season one of Netflix’s “The Politician.” Despite a somewhat minor role, Corenswet proved he had the acting chops to work alongside stars like Broadway powerhouse Ben Platt and industry magnate Gwyneth Paltrow, and now he takes the lead with gusto. Corenswet fits perfectly in 1947 Hollywood with his slicked-back hair and crooked grin. Perfectly combining fresh-faced eagerness and smooth old-world charm, Corenswet is sure to quickly become the next face that launched a thousand thirst-tweets — and he’s not the only one.
Familiar heartthrob Darren Criss stars as Raymond Ainsley, a half-Filipino director with a vision of changing the way movies are made by breaking barriers, and breakout Broadway star Jeremy Pope costars as Ainsley’s screenwriter, Archie Coleman, who wants to make it in Hollywood without being judged for the color of his skin.
It’s not all about the boys: Laura Harrier, who you might recognize from her breakout role in “Spiderman: Homecoming,” plays Camille Washington, Ainsley’s girlfriend and an aspiring actress facing obstacles in casting because of her race. Starring opposite her as rival actress Claire Wood is Samara Weaving; her mean-girl glare and cold determination set her up as the perfect picture of a privileged Hollywood golden girl.
The cast is rounded out by appearances by well-known stars like “The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons as real-life talent agent Henry Willson and Patti LuPone as a former actress and wife of a powerful studio head. Real-life movie stars Anna May Wong and Rock Hudson, played by Michelle Krusiec and Jake Picking respectively, make their appearances in this what-if story about Hollywood’s aversion to diverse casting. Producer Ryan Murphy has packed this miniseries to the brim with characters, each boasting their own story to tell — and that’s just including the fictional ones.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Yeah, so are we. “Hollywood” is a big story that attempts to ask a lot of big questions. What if casting directors were more inclusive and less prone to typecasting? What if Hollywood had been more receptive to people of color as screenwriters, directors and leading actors? “Hollywood’s” storyline of a film with a diverse cast and crew starts as what has the potential to be a critical study of racism, sexism and homophobia through a new lens, but as the show progresses it becomes more of a labyrinthine mess of historically inaccurate wish-fulfillment than a story that audiences can find identity and representation in.
There is very little catharsis to be found in a story where the main characters win over and over with few major repercussions in sight, especially in a historical context where it never feasibly would have happened. “Hollywood” feels not so much like an uplifting “what-if” story so much as it feels like an overly fantastic departure from reality, one that does little justice to the real-life men and women who experienced countless discrimination and prejudice simply for chasing their dreams. This show had the opportunity to explore real-life challenges faced by performers and creators in the film industry even to this day, and instead, it does a 180-turn into overstretched fanservice.
Does this mean Hollywood isn’t fun and enjoyable? Of course not. The cast is fantastic, and the drama characteristic of Ryan Murphy’s shows is massively entertaining. It’s packed to the brim with constant action and heightened, soapy drama reminiscent of popular shows like “Jane the Virgin.” The set dressing and costumes draw viewers right into “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” It is admittedly at times comforting to imagine a version of America’s past where the marginalized are given more representation in art and the world is a little kinder. In these trying and uncertain times, fantastical models of the past can serve as a welcome respite from the worries of everyday life, and this is obviously what “Hollywood” is trying to do.
At the end of the day, the problem with “Hollywood” is that it cannot decide what kind of series it wants to be. It spends half of its time exposing the gritty underbelly of glamorous celebrity life and the other half sugarcoating the struggles minorities faced in the film industry then and now in favor of far-fetched happy endings. Is there some comfort in escaping into this shinier, kinder version of our country’s cruel history? Perhaps. Raymond Ainsley says during one episode that movies do not just show us the world as it is, but as how it could be. “Hollywood” simply fails to find a balance between those two.
I give “Hollywood” 3/5 stars. All seven episodes are currently streaming on Netflix.