Netflix’s “Hollywood,” a revisionist ode to the post-World War II era American film industry, asks an interesting question: What would happen if cinema’s exclusivity and marginalization on the basis of race, sexuality and gender were addressed during its Golden Age?
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, “Hollywood” attempts to answer this question, setting up a curious premise with a blend of interesting characters that balance film history and fantasy. However, despite an unwavering commitment to its premise, the show fails to make a case for itself, with a weak script that underwhelms the promise of its compelling setup or performances.
“Hollywood” follows a group of aspiring actors, producers and writers coming together to create and promote a big-budget studio film with the hopes of breaking identity barriers, while operating under the assumption that they all risk putting their careers on the line. All of the characters come together under the banner of the fictional Ace Studios, after Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) takes the company’s reins while her husband is in a coma. Avis, although initially hesitant, greenlights a drama about Peg Entwistle, an actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in the 1930s. Retitling the project “Meg” and casting Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) in the lead role, the creators at Ace Studios tackle various obstacles in the process of producing and marketing their film.
Most of the characters are fictionalized versions of real actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, while others are amalgamations of various celebrities from the era. Camille, as well as Jack Castello (David Corenswet), are both fictional aspiring actors, and “Hollywood” is interested in balancing an exploration into their personal and professional struggles. Camille’s romantic partner and the director of “Meg,” Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), is adamant on creating a boundary-breaking film as a half-Filipino artist, and regularly vocalizes the industry’s past shortcomings with respect to diversity. Meanwhile, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) faces the dual barriers of finding success as a Black screenwriter while hiding his relationship with Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), arguably the most recognizable real-life actor in the film, at the beginning of his career.
From both an aesthetic and a performance standpoint, “Hollywood” beautifully and meticulously recreates the world of post-war Hollywood. The show’s costuming and set design capture the industry in all its glamour and traditionality. The cast’s performances are seamless, bringing an appropriate campiness and comedic energy when necessary, but imbuing dramatic moments with a sense of authenticity. Never relying solely on the aesthetics of their characters to convincingly portray them as being of the era, the cast members successfully and consistently bridge humor and depth.
It’s a shame, then, that the story of “Hollywood” is so flawed. While the script includes several clever lines and cheeky references that manage to both break the fourth wall and point to the film industry’s historical legacies, the overarching plot is too convenient for its own good. Every moment of tension from a previous episode seems to resolve itself immediately in the next. Unless characters are portrayed as obvious villains, their mistakes and flaws do no significant damage to their relationships.
Ultimately, the rose-colored revisionism of “Hollywood” falls flat. Where successful revisionist art has sought to shift power and agency from the historically privileged to the marginalized, the “good guys” in the show are still white and wealthy. Representation and success for the show’s queer characters, female characters or characters of color don’t come from their own actions, but from the sheer goodwill of the studio executives. What can we learn from a show that has nothing more to say than, “Life would have been better if the people in charge simply weren’t racist, sexist and homophobic?”
With a plot that resolves itself conveniently and a revisionist lens that feels unearned, “Hollywood” lacks a critical dialogue about the film industry of the 20th century and of today. Considering that diversity in Hollywood — behind the camera, on-screen and at awards shows — is still an issue that requires progress, portraying a magically inclusive Hollywood Golden Age is as ignorant as it is naive.