Laura Harrier is Camille Washington in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.


Dept. of Wishful Thinking


In the fifth episode of Hollywood, there is a moment when the director, the writer, and the producer of an upcoming major motion picture are sat at dinner and discussing script revisions. The writer, Archie Coleman, gets a little twitchy. The producer, Dick Samuels, stops him. Dick, you see, is a seasoned veteran. He is the man behind the man. Razor sharp, supremely savvy, with an eye for talent and an ear for dialogue, he knows exactly what can make a film and what will break a film. He tells Archie: “I’ve gone page by page with writers through hundreds of scripts and the instinct, especially for a young writer, is to get defensive. When I have a question about something, it means that there’s something that’s not there, something that you might do well to flesh out.”

I bring up this particular scene because it speaks to everything that’s wrong with this series. It smacks of irony that Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan had written-in a character whose job it was to fine tune a production, to make the difficult decisions, to kill one’s darlings, and yet seemingly not apply those same stringent standards to their own production.

This is a Netflix affliction. It’s the narrative bloat that comes with having free rein. When creators and showrunners aren’t made to answer difficult questions about their work. Whether it’s justifying a character’s actions. Or having to explain a show’s raison d’être.

I’ve seen all seven episodes of Hollywood and I can’t tell you why it exists.

The boys in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.

It’s no secret that every filmmaker has one of these homages in his or her back pocket. A love letter to cinema. A paean to the thing that had such an indelible impact on their lives. Billy Wilder. David Lynch. The Coen Brothers. Michel Hazavanicius. Or, if you’re Quentin Tarantino, almost your entire body of work. But this isn’t Sunset Boulevard or Hail Caesar! or Mulholland Drive. This tries hard to channel the same sense of joyful nostalgia as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but ends up coming off as a pale imitation.

Ryan Murphy tries to put forward an alternate history of Tinseltown, one in which a pimp has a heart of gold, a studio executive makes the “right” decision (instead of the popular one), and an agent grows a conscience. Unbelievable, I know. In his Hollywood, simply being good at what you do is more than enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, or white, or straight, or gay. All you need is a big enough dream and by golly it’ll come true. Why? Because Hollywood. That’s why.

The squad in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.

I know what Ryan Murphy is trying to do here. He’s trying to show us what it would be like to give the dream to all those who never had a chance at it. Jack Castello, back from the war and looking to be a star. Archie Coleman, the gay, black screenwriter who doesn’t want to just write “race pictures”. Camille Washington, the black actress who wants to be a leading lady. Raymond Ainsley, the mixed-race director looking for his first big break. What if all of them got what they wanted? What if they were were allowed that one shot at greatness?

But creating an alternate reality is hard. It isn’t enough to just introduce a series of new players into history. A mishmash of fact and fiction only works if there are believable consequences. What impact do Jack, and Archie, and Camille, and Raymond have on the reality we already know? How does their existence change the lives of George Cukor, and Tallulah Bankhead, and Noel Coward, and Vivien Leigh? We never find out. Because all we’re presented with is a fanboy fantasy. A preachy sermon that’s too often high on its own fumes.

Samara Weaving is Claire in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.

And while I am all for creating positive visions of the world that we can all aspire toward, I am also aware that any victory is only as sweet as the struggle is real.

Here, a major studio makes a motion picture with an African American lead, faces boycotts in the South, threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and all of it is brushed off with barely any acknowledgement. Here, all it takes for the world to change is for a movie to be made and put out into the world. As one newsreel announcer exclaims in the series, “racial riots across the country simply melted away, as thousands rushed out to see a new kind of motion picture.”

We don’t believe in the struggles of theses characters because we don’t see them struggle with it. Not really. Instead, we’re expected to superimpose what we know from our reality onto these individuals.

But it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough that the villains of the piece – the sexists, the racists, and the Klansmen – are these anonymous, shadowy figures. Especially not now. Not here. Not when their voices and faces are as clear as day.

Yes, these happy diversions are important. They show us how the world should be or could be. But this optimism shouldn’t be a whitewash. It should be the opposite. A real Hollywood ending, that glorious resolution in which everyone gets what they want, only works if they’ve earned it. The hero’s journey is dependent on facing a decisive crisis and coming out on top. Without real conflict or crisis, there can be no transformation.

Dylan McDermott is Ernie in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.

I can count the best parts of this series on one hand. Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor are magnificent. Dylan McDermott and Joe Mantello are charming. Jim Parsons just shines.

There are also these smatterings of truly beautiful moments that give us a peek at what it could have been. Of what it should have been. In the third episode, when Dick Samuels advises Rock Hudson to not let Hollywood swallow him whole. In the seventh episode, when Hattie McDaniel makes Camille Washington promise to stand up for who she is. When Ernie and Ellen fall in love. Look out for them. They’re incredibly written, wonderfully performed, but unfortunately too far and few between.

Laura Harrier plays Camille Washington in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood.

Despite having an oeuvre of work that runs the gamut, from high school musical to police procedural to everything in between, Ryan Murphy really is an acquired taste. He does horror. He does drama. He does black comedy. He does something for everyone. But irrespective of whether he’s making a satirical slasher or doing an exploration of ball culture, there is still a distinct tone to his productions. And that tone is arch. You either like it or you don’t.

Hollywood, however, doesn’t suffer from the Marmite problem. This isn’t a case of not getting what Ryan Murphy is all about. This is simply a case of self-indulgence run amok.

Netflix, Limited Series, 7 episodes
Showrunners: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan
Directors: Ryan Murphy, Daniel Minahan, Michael Uppendahl, Janet Mock, and Jessica Yu
Writers: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, Janet Mock, and Reilly Smith
Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, Jim Parsons, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Patti LuPone, Jake Picking, and Joe Mantello

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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