Binge Now: Hollywood Is A Soapy, Feel-Good Netflix Series
Few TV producers have cracked showbusiness the way Ryan Murphy has done over the past decade. As the brains behind the hit musical drama series Glee and the award-winning anthology show American Horror Story, his latest project is a Netflix original production called Hollywood, an entertaining period drama that delves into the toxic underbelly of the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” Like some of Murphy’s previous work, Hollywood is endearingly cheesy, and it provides a neat (albeit simplistic) synthesis of the inequalities in the entertainment industry.
Set in the late 1940s, Hollywood follows the well-trodden premise of actors and creatives desperate to get a foot in the door. The show has several principal characters and, when their paths eventually cross, they produce a film about the feeling of being an outsider in the industry. Despite the challenges in their way, the characters persevere in the hopeful, idealistic pursuit of their big break.
Stories of struggling artists may seem cliched, but what makes Hollywood relevant is the way it frames the story in terms of current debates about the exploitation behind the gilded screen of the movie business. The world presented here is more than a lavish, glamorous depiction of Hollywood life. It also exposes a world where ethnic minorities have to pander to racial stereotypes, LGBTQ+ artists have to live fearfully in the closet, and everyone has to sell a bit of themselves to get ahead.
Murphy had pitched the project to be a “love letter to Tinseltown.” But the show’s most worthwhile moments are not when it pays starry-eyed tribute to the magic of motion pictures. Its most emotional scenes are when it spotlights the current concerns of social justice movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite. It is part of the broader impetus in recent years to bring mainstream attention to these decades-old critiques of the dominant studio system.
A large part of what really makes the show engaging is the cast of characters. Their identities are more than mere dramatizations of social issues. Each is their own ever-growing individual who grapples with a range of problems and emotions. One protagonist, Claire (Samara Weaving) is the daughter of a studio executive and, although she has used nepotism to advance her acting career, she is more than a self-entitled brat, as she accepts the need to work hard at her craft and learns to respect the talent of others.
Another main character is the half-Filipino director Raymond (Darren Criss), who speaks proudly of his mixed-race heritage and dreams of improving the representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood, even though he passes for a White American and does not face the same discrimination as other non-White creatives in the industry. His characterization asks interesting questions of how a mixed-race artist can use this privilege of being “White” when it suits him and being “Other” only when it is convenient.
The entire cast delivers an entertaining performance, especially Jim Parsons, who plays the role of Hollywood agent Henry Wilson, one of the few non-fictional characters among the main cast. Best known for playing the nerdy scientist Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, Parsons evokes a devious, sinister presence but also a powerful, well-respected personality. He embodies the creepy, sleazy agent who takes advantage of desperate young actors, helping to turn them into stars in exchange for sexual favors.
Given the big-money backing from Netflix, it is unsurprising the production value has such a polished gloss to it. However, this stylized period esthetic perhaps does not correspond to the feelings of the harsh realities the show claims to explore. The pacey swing-inspired musical score and the 1940s costume and set design establish the tone for a stylish period-piece experience. Yet the lavish glamorization seems unfitting for a show that claims to dig into the harsher side of the supposedly glamorous past.
The plot is straightforward and, at times, a bit simplistic and predictable, while the script sometimes tries to simplify and resolve complex issues in one confrontational scene of sharp dialogue. But this show cannot claim to outline a quick and simple blueprint for the film industry to cure its culture of abuse and inequality; nor can any show. So, take Hollywood as a simple, feel-good dream for the future of the dream factory: It is about the feeling of striving for a better world, rather than a concrete, realistic plan to change the industry.
At the end of the day, the simplicity of the show is one of its appeals. It is light, fun, heartwarming, and takes the viewer on an emotional journey shaped by its theme: the need to tell the buried unspoken stories. Especially if you are a fan of Glee or other Ryan Murphy shows like Pose or his other Netflix original series, The Politician, then Hollywood would be an enjoyable guilty pleasure to binge. The ideas are neatly packaged and the feelings rooted in the issues inequality are made accessible and entertaining.
Hollywood is released on Friday, May 1, on Netflix.