Taking place around the late 1940s, Netflix’s newest original, Hollywood, opens with Jack Costello (David Corenswet) eagerly watching a film reel showcasing the glamor of the star-studded town. Over several grainy black-and-white moving pictures, the narrator boasts, “If you make all the right moves, you too could be living in Beverly Hills!”
Setting up the idealistic tone of the seven-episode series, Costello leaves the theater with a big grin on his face and goes to stand outside Ace Pictures’ tall iron fence. Waiting to be hired as an extra, he stands with a big grin as a casting director comes and selects people. Luckily for him, the movie they are filming that day is a war picture. Having served in World War II, Jack asks the casting director for a chance despite his lack of acting experience. Scoffing at him, she tells him he has no chance of making it in Hollywood with just a pretty face.
Deterred and upset, Jack stumbles over to a bar where an older man, Ernie (Dylan McDermott), approaches him with a job offer at Golden Tip Gas. Little does he first know that it is actually a prostitution den disguised as a gas station. At first, Jack is reluctant, but knowing that he has a pregnant wife (Maude Apatow) to support, he makes the ultimate decision to work for Ernie. However, while doing sex work, Jack never stops following his dreams. He stands outside of Ace Pictures’ fence every morning, hoping to be cast as an extra. His journey in trying to get a screen test for movies crosses paths with many aspiring stars along the way: screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), director Raymond (Darren Criss), and actress Camille (Laura Harrier) among others.
Each key character that Jack meets represents a part of America not often featured in Hollywood at the time. Illustrating how colorful our world is, Hollywood does not shy away from highlighting a diverse set of characters. Not only is the cast filled with people of different creeds and races, but it is also their backgrounds which make them unique. Ernie is an old soul, which is not atypical for a moving picture, but he is a prostitute. While sex work is undeniably still shamed now, it was even worse in the past. It was something that happened only behind closed doors; modern America has a little more freedom. People are now freely allowed to share uncensored images of themselves on the internet – something old Hollywood would scoff at.
To name a few others: Archie is a black writer, Camille is a black actress, and Raymond is a half-Asian director. Rewriting Hollywood, creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan show us how different the industry could be if those not included were given a chance for the silver screen. Practically every few frames of Brennan and Murphy’s Hollywood pushes the limits of the Golden Era, giving the audience a glance of what could have been today, had change just happened way sooner. It is idealistic and dreamy, something that any person who has felt underrepresented in the industry could want. However, despite the show’s ambition and fantastic message of empowerment, it becomes borderline despicable the more you think about it.
Hollywood sacrifices a great story in exchange for the writers giving themselves a pat on the back, which is not an unfamiliar concept for those who are aware of the creators’ track record on the musical television show Glee. Their gross mishandling of current events and representation in the past have garnered much criticism (from small blog posts to well-established magazines) addressing everything from the show’s rampant tokenism to simply problematic themes despite being heralded as the show that “ushered in an era of inclusivity”.
Strange lines and scenes that are obviously forced for the sake of having a character spew a “motivational” line of diversity or sexuality are tough to get through. Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), oddly enough, plays a small part in getting a film, which is at the center point of the series, produced. In her only scene, the First Lady of the United States (at the time) makes an appearance to tell studio heads, “What it might mean to a dirt poor little black girl” if a black actress was in a leading role. While a heartwarming scene for a few moments, it leads to further thought.
A white woman explaining how a little black girl would feel after seeing their movie feels elitist or somewhat like they – the white people running the studio – are doing a true service to the world. In a way, it feels like those lines ascended the screen… as if they were supposed to mean something more. Practically, Roosevelt’s lines translate to Hollywood itself as a show – how LGBTQ+, Asian, and black audiences are going to feel grateful and proud after watching the series attempt to change the narrative.
Unfortunately, despite the audience’s hopes, Hollywood falls short of expectations. Though seeing as Glee set a pretty low bar in terms of diversity and inclusion, perhaps this did provide a slightly more tasteful look at Murphy and Brennan’s skills. If there was a magic wand that could wipe away all of its forced dialogue and recoiling effects, Hollywood would be a worthwhile binge; however, no such tool exists. In order to see the praiseworthy elements of the show – things like its behind-the-scenes look on cinematic sets, the allure of period pieces, and talented cast – you have to sit through unnatural dialogue, uncomfortable scenes, and blatant tokenism.