There’s a scene in the trailer for The Greatest Showman, a musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, where Hugh Jackman grins at Zach Efron for saying he does not know what “show business” is. “That’s because I’ve just invented it,” he tells him, cheekily. Like a zombie show where the characters somehow do not know what zombies are, this little bit of irony is fun or grating, depending on the type of person you are. But hardly anyone wants to deal with an entire show full of that. Hollywood, a new Netflix miniseries from Ryan Murphy, is an entire show full of that.
Murphy is perhaps the buzziest maker of television in the business. With this latest project, the writer / director (who co-created the series with frequent collaborator Ian Brennan), who is behind shows like Glee and American Horror Story, brings his distinct slick, sensational style to the Golden Age of showbiz. Bawdy and transgressive, it starts with a flair and energy that’s hard to look away from, tremendously watchable from minute one. Trouble is, it’s impossible to parse what the show wants to even be about.
Hollywood is an alt-history story about a cast of mostly fictional strivers trying to make it big in 1940s Los Angeles. Just about every core cast member we’re introduced to — writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), among others — are from marginalized backgrounds. They’re gay, women, not white, or some combination of the three. They are, by design, people who would have never, ever stood a chance in Old Hollywood, at least not without finding some way to pass. This is the first aim of the show: a rewrite of the well-worn dream-big story, but one starring people who weren’t allowed to be a part of it, and one where they win.
But the series isn’t just a rosy what-if fable. Hollywood also has ambitions of being a much-needed corrective to our overly simplistic view of the Hollywood that was. The show echoes works like Scotty Bowers’ Hollywood tell-all Full Service and the book / documentary Tab Hunter: Confidential, offering a look into a more hedonistic side of the Golden Age of show business. This Hollywood was not carefully laundered for mass consumption, a Dreamland where big-name stars had hookups arranged by fixers that conducted business out of a gas station front and secretly gay and bisexual actors and producers threw exclusive parties where they could be secrets no longer.
In this, the miniseries wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Hollywood shows the era for its ugliness — the homophobia, racism, and sexism that shut out marginalized talent for decades — and dreams a new dream where it wasn’t enough to stop our heroes. But its other goal of disabusing viewers of the wholesome myth embodied by the films of the era gets incredibly messy fast.
Part of the problem is that Hollywood is not entirely built around fictional characters. Real names enter and leave the drama throughout, from Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) to Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), real people who did the impossible present to bolster the egos of characters that never existed and therefore, arguably, their creators. Then there’s Henry Wilson (an impressively nasty Jim Parsons), a real-life talent agent who was famous for developing the era’s leading men. He was also, as Hollywood makes excessively clear, alleged to be the Harvey Weinstein of his day, coercing young men into sex in exchange for parts and stardom. On the show, one of those men is the aspiring actor whom Wilson turns into Rock Hudson — a curious choice since the show barely seems interested in the real Rock Hudson’s biography.
It’s hard not to see the twin ambitions of Hollywood as utterly at odds with each other. The truth-telling of its nastier side inspired by the real version of history undercuts the earnestness of its wish-fulfillment, making it seem cloying and saccharine. In turn, that earnest part of the show makes its forays into Old Hollywood’s real-world underbelly feel exploitative and cheap. There is too much friction between the two for them to build a cohesive whole, and, as a result, the whole enterprise is compromised at best and condescending at worst.
Like most people involved in the Hollywood of the real world, the characters of Hollywood are utterly convinced that everything they’re doing is so important. They make dreams real, you see, telling stories so that others can see them and be inspired to believe that 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 go on.
But the show also wants you to know that it represents a business where abusers thrive, sex can be traded for power, and bigoted men can build systems that protect their interests and extend their reach. That’s just as much a part of show business as the brown kid who gets it in their head that they can make it, matter just as much as the white ones, and become an example that inspires countless others back home. It’s telling that while Hollywood’s marginalized characters find success, its biggest abuser is ambiguously reformed, allowed to stay in the business of dreams after only a few scenes of feeling sorry about it all.
These are two sides of the same coin: the pernicious reach of the powerful and the inspiring success stories that launder their reputation. In tying the two together once more, the series just props up the old system it thinks it’s subverting. Hollywood’s greatest production has always been Hollywood.