It’s been a while since I watched a new TV series that confounded and infuriated me quite as much as Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Hollywood. Mediocre television abounds, boring badness is common, interesting-but-not-quite-there stuff happens regularly, really great TV is an occasional and exciting treat. Truly insulting stinkers are a special breed, though, and I’ll admit I have a weird fondness for them. There’s something pleasurable about trying to sift through the shambolic wreckage of The Witcher to figure out how it got to be this way; similarly, I would love to be able to stop watching Quibi and yet I gave it many, many hours of my time. This club is where Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood belongs. It is a baffling Hindenburg of TV.
Hollywood is part seedy underbelly story, part alternate history of the first Hollywood Golden Age, based loosely on the memoir of Scotty Bowers. In that memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, Bowers recalls his time working at a Los Angeles gas station, where he’d provide sexual services for the celebrity customers who came in for a fill-up. Murphy’s Hollywood starts from that same rough premise: Dylan McDermott plays Ernie, a twinkling-eyed, sideways-smiling gas-station owner/pimp, who offers employment to a roster of wide-eyed, well-endowed young men. Jack Castello (David Corenswet), Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), and Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) all have big Hollywood dreams, but they can’t get their feet in the door until they put different body parts, er, somewhere else. Ernie’s their pimp, but the opportunities they get at the gas station are real. Jack gets an in with Ace Pictures, a studio looking to hire new acting talent. Archie manages to sell his screenplay to the same studio. And wouldn’t you know it, Raymond ends up attached to that project as the director.
The movie is called Peg, based on the life of a woman named Peg Entwistle who died of suicide after leaping off the “H” in the Hollywoodland sign. After pressure from Raymond and some internal studio politics — led by de facto studio head Patti LuPone, and sparked by a luncheon with Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris) — the movie gets a new name, a new cast, and becomes a boundary-breaking film that changes the trajectory of Hollywood history.
When customers pull up to Ernie’s gas station early in the show, they use a code word to signal they want the full service rather than just help with their automobiles. They pull up, roll the windows down, and tell the hunky gas-station attendants that they “want to go to Dreamland.” It’s an idea the entire series circles repeatedly, the temptation of a Dreamland version of this cultural history. The gas-station bordello is one piece of it: its cleanliness, its cheerfulness, the mostly unmarred conviction that Ernie’s providing a healthy, useful service that amounts to hard (snicker) but fulfilling work for these young men. There’s a wink there, though, a sly and almost sufficient awareness that this is a sanitized version of something much more complex. It helps that Dylan McDermott’s performance is one of the few in Hollywood that seems to chew happily on its own absurdity.
The grand, fantastic trajectory of Raymond and Archie’s movie is just as dreamlike, and significantly more blinkered. Without revealing the specific and implausibly progressivist shifts that take place over the show’s seven episodes, the movie Peg becomes a beacon of hope and openness in Hollywood. It is a landmark production that dramatically alters everyone’s understanding of what America can be; it is the Obama presidency of movies, impossibly shifted to the 1930s. It’s another Dreamland on a larger and more universal scale, a vision of early film history based not on plausibility or thoughtful changes or a narrative thought experiment, but as a big, blunt Band-Aid to fix everything that’s wrong with the world. Hollywood is confident in the idea that if people could only have seen themselves onscreen much earlier in American life, we’d all be much, much further along in the arc of history that supposedly bends toward justice.
On the surface, it’s a sweet idea. Marginalized people assert themselves in the cultural machinery at a crucial moment when film is a sudden and inescapable monoculture, and as a result … ? Equality, I suppose, or maybe financial security? Or … respect? Or the disappearance of prejudice? Hollywood is not long on the details of the aftermath, nor does it care much about details at all, in any scope beyond “how many male hookers are in this scene” or “how naked are they?” The end goal for Hollywood is visibility, the right to live as you are without having to hide. Pride is good. Shame is bad. The opposite of oppression is “being seen.”
Hollywood is right that visibility is vital, but for the show, the primacy of being seen overwhelms any complexity, complication, or sadness. The show makes all kinds of broad gestures toward intersectionality, but disregards any major distinction between queerness and non-whiteness. Its villains are people like Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who are motivated by their own shame and so are mostly given a pass for their cruelty. (He’s very mean, but he’s wounded!) Hollywood’s dream is predicated on logic so narrow-minded that its sentimentality curls all the way back around to cynicism. The fresh-faced young people who succeed in this story do so because they try very, very hard, and because people with lots of money and power suddenly decide to spend their money in ways that are good instead of bad. It’s a dream of a new Hollywood predicated on all the same inequalities and presumptions of meritocracy that fuel the current one, with the hopeful suggestion that perhaps the people on top should please decide to make better choices.
The underlying ideology of Hollywood is chillingly coherent, but the expression of it all is fantastically haphazard. Jack is saddled with a pregnant wife who serves no purpose, is wildly underwritten, and feels like a remnant of an early draft that someone forgot to delete. Narrative time moves in illegible bumps and skids. There are a few legitimately glorious bits, especially including Holland Taylor as a casting agent and Patti LuPone as Avis Amberg, who wears perfect turbans and chides Eleanor Roosevelt for complaining about heels that are only an inch tall. And like some other TV disasters, much of Hollywood is bad in a way that can be diverting — it is sometimes purposely ridiculous, in that way that makes you roll your eyes and say “oh you!” In some sequences, its goofiness succeeds in being fun.
By the end, though, I kept wondering what the point of this alternate history exercise could’ve been. It’s unfair to compare Hollywood to a series like The Plot Against America — their aims are very different, and I’m not trying to punish Hollywood for its relative lightness. Fun and goofiness can be incredible gifts, and Hollywood’s failure is not that it took alternate history and turned it into something fizzy and optimistic. But alternate histories always operate with a double vision; they are timeline experiments that have one finger on the past and one finger tapping firmly on the present. Plot Against America is a bald and blatant warning about totalitarianism. Hollywood is … a plea? A plea to studio executives to please cast more people of color, which should fix any major prejudices currently plaguing society?
There are worse things to plead for, even if the outcome of that request is unlikely to have the kind of sweeping affirmative power that Hollywood suggests it would. But some of Murphy’s other work as a producer has been directed in the opposite direction, especially Pose, which enacts the radical, joyful representation Hollywood lamely mimics. Pose is such an open-armed, democratic story of hope and sadness, a demonstration of how powerful it is to ignore the cultural gatekeepers. Hollywood by comparison looks like a show made to celebrate them.