Netflix makes a series set in a fictional Hollywood in a fictional America that tries to apologize for the real ones, poorly.
It’s 1946-1947 and WWII Veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet) and his pregnant wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow) move to Hollywood so that Jack can try to be an actor. After they start going broke, Jack takes a job working at a gas station for Ernie West (Dylan McDermot). It turns out that the gas station is a front for a male escort service, so Jack finds himself servicing various men and women, including Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the wife of Ace Studios head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). Avis helps give Jack a leg up in his career and soon he is trying to make it for real in Hollywood. At the same time, director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) is trying to get a movie made written by black screenwriter (and Jack’s fellow escort) Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). Raymond’s girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), is also an up-and-coming actress who finds herself stuck in bit parts due to her race. Roy Fitzgerald, AKA Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), also tries to break into Hollywood with the help of agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who has an in with Ace Studios executives Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor). Everyone’s trying to live their dreams, even though they’re fighting each other to get to the top.
It would be great if this series was the kind of story that it seems like it was going to be at the beginning. People come to Hollywood, thinking they’re going to be a huge success, only for the reality to set in and everyone ends up having to compromise in order to make it. However, the show quickly, and I mean around episode 2, subverts this and instead starts to give all of these people happy endings and make their dreams come true. Moreover, it does it in a way that is completely unrealistic, usually having people just quickly sidestep racial, sexual, gender, or other social issues that would have been a major issue in 1946. This might not have been so bad if all of the characters were fictional and this was a fake version of Hollywood, but instead the series decides to incorporate various figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood and then completely ignore their actual stories. They say it’s supposed to be “rewriting” the story of Hollywood, but it doesn’t do that so much as depart entirely from the reality that the first half of the series creates.
What’s most annoying about this, to me, is that the series wants you to be sure that you know this is what they are doing. The focus of the plot is making a biopic film about Peg Entwhistle, an actress who gained some notoriety because she jumped to her death off of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. However, as the series goes on, the story of what actually happened is changed until it has a completely different, happier ending than the tragic true story. The show tries to use this device to excuse its alteration of history, but ultimately, it just ends up making sure that nobody ever really has any kind of actual character development or pays any type of price for their actions. Every character is redeemed and gets a happy ending (except for the lawyer). Most of the things that would require some solid scenes to justify, like completely altering the relationship between two characters in a fundamental way, occurs almost entirely off-screen, something I’m told is common for shows made by Ryan Murphy. It feels like a cheat in all the small steps, so the big steps don’t feel earned.
The thing that wrecks the series is not having an alternate history where people get over racism and sexism and homophobia more easily than they did in the real world, but the fact that the show starts off by saying that all of these things DO exist, then just ignores them in favor of a happy ending. There’s no mention of the violence that often opposed progressive social movements, beyond a few theaters getting some extra security. Also, the issues are limited almost exclusively to the South, which is kind of forgetting that there are a lot of racists North of the Mason-Dixon, particularly before the 1960s. Considering that armed people are, in 2020, protesting having to stay at home and doing so with guns, I somehow find it difficult to believe that 1950 was only going to offer a few short boos to an interracial gay couple, as happens in the film (for perspective, interracial marriage was illegal in all but 7 states in 1948, and gay marriage was illegal for most of my lifespan thus far in most states, including mine). Pretending that there weren’t a lot of people who would violently back up their bigotry is forgiving a lot of sins. I’m not saying you need to focus on them, but you can either A) tell a story that isn’t grounded in reality or B) at least acknowledge that decisions have consequences, many of which are going to be negative. Also, there’s something uncomfortable in a series where almost every characters’ success starts with them having sex with someone in power.
I will say that all of the performances in the show are amazing. Everyone plays the part they were told to play and, honestly, it almost makes it worthwhile, but in the end the show just couldn’t live up to the premise. I’d say if there’s anything else on your watchlist, get that out of the way first.
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