There is a scene in the trailer for The Greatest Showman, a musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, where Hugh Jackman smiles at Zach Efron for saying he doesn’t know what “show business” is. “It’s because I just invented it,” he said cheekily. Like a zombie show where the characters don’t know what zombies are, this little irony is fun or creaky, depending on the type of person you are. But almost no one wants to face an entire show full of that. Hollywood, a new Netflix miniseries from Ryan Murphy, is a whole show full of that.
Murphy is perhaps the fastest growing television manufacturer in the industry. With this latest project, the writer / director (who co-created the series with frequent collaborator Ian Brennan), who is behind shows like Joy and American horror story, brings his distinct, smooth and sensational style to the golden age of showbiz. Debauchery and transgressive, it begins with a flair and an energy difficult to look away, extremely visible from the first minute. The problem is, it’s impossible to analyze what the show wants to be about.
Hollywood is an alternative story that tells the story of a cast made up mainly of fictional foreigners who tried to make themselves known in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Almost all of the main cast members we are introduced to – the writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), among others – come from marginalized backgrounds. They are gay, female, not white, or a combination of all three. They are, by design, people who would never, never have had a chance in old Hollywood, at least not without finding a way to get through. This is the show’s primary focus: a rewrite of the big, worn-out dream story, but one starring people who weren’t allowed to be in it, and one where they win.
But the series is not just a pink fable. Hollywood also aims to be a much-needed fix for our overly simplistic view of Hollywood that was. The show echoes Scotty Bowers’ say-all in Hollywood Full service and the book / documentary Tab Hunter: confidential, offering a glimpse of a more hedonistic aspect of the show’s golden age. This Hollywood has not been thoroughly laundered for mass consumption, a Dreamland where renowned stars had connections arranged by fixers doing business at the front of a gas station and secretly gay actors and producers. bisexuals held exclusive parties where they could no longer be secrets.
In this, the miniseries wants to have its cake and eat it too. Hollywood shows the time for its ugliness – the homophobia, racism and sexism that have excluded talents marginalized for decades – and dreams of a new dream where it was not enough to stop our heroes. But his other goal of disabusing viewers of the healthy myth embodied by the movies of the time becomes incredibly fast.
Part of the problem is that Hollywood is not entirely built around fictional characters. Real names come in and out of the drama throughout, from Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) to Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), real people who made the impossible gift to boost the egos of characters who never existed and so, no doubt, their creators. Then there is Henry Wilson (an incredibly mean Jim Parsons), a talented real-life agent who was famous for developing the flagship men of the time. He was also, Hollywood makes excessively Clear, supposed to be the Harvey Weinstein of his day, forcing young men into sex in exchange for parts and fame. One of the men in the series is the aspiring actor Wilson turns into Rock Hudson – a curious choice because the series hardly seems interested in the real Rock Hudson biography.
It’s hard not to see the twin ambitions of Hollywood totally disagree with each other. Truth on the most nasty side inspired by the true version of history undermines the seriousness of his wish fulfillment, making it appear disgusting and saccharine. In turn, this serious part of the series makes his forays into the belly of the real world of Old Hollywood feel exploited and cheap. There is too much friction between the two to form a coherent whole, and therefore the whole business is at best compromised and at worst condescending.
Like most people involved in real-world Hollywood, the characters in Hollywood are absolutely convinced that all they do is so important. They make dreams come true, you see, telling stories so that others can see them and be inspired to believe they can do it too. we need to have a version of this story where the marginalized succeed because we need them to inspire a more diverse future version of Hollywood so that Hollywood can continue.
But the show as well wants you to know that this represents a business where aggressors thrive, sex can be traded for power, and fanatical men can build systems that protect their interests and extend their reach. It’s just as much part of show business as the brown-haired kid who tells them they can do it, just as much as white people, and become an example that inspires countless others at home. In other words, HollywoodMarginalized figures in society succeed, its biggest abuser is ambiguously reformed, allowed to remain in the dream business after only a few scenes of desolation.
These are two sides of the same coin: the pernicious reach of the powerful and the inspiring achievements that whiten their reputation. By linking the two again, the series simply supports the old system that it believes is overturning. The greatest Hollywood production has always been Hollywood.