It’s been ten days since Netflix released its latest original, Hollywood, and TV critics have spoken: it’s sudsy, hollow, uninspiring, and even a disaster. Their reasons? In short, it’s too ‘unrealistic’. But there is much to be celebrated about the self-avowed revisionist history show – not despite the improbabilities, but because of them.
Hollywood is like being taken to “Dreamland”, the show’s code word for being escorted for sexual services. You know it’s not the real thing, but you enjoy it better anyway.
Written by Ryan Murphy – who also gave us Glee, American Horror Story and The Politician, it revolves around the lives of multiple characters of different races, genders, sexual orientations, and even age groups, as they dream big in Tinseltown to become successful in the big screen industry’s golden age of a post-WWII America.
Jack Costello (David Corenswet) is a second world war veteran who’s served his time and now wants to try out a different kind of shooting. Although he’s white, heterosexual, and looks like a Greek god, his struggle is real: he has no job, no acting experience, and a pair of twins on the way. After landing a job at the infamous gas station, filling gas and fulfilling fantasies simultaneously, he coerces budding writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) to work with him to attend to gay clients. Yes, he’s gay and black in a 1950s America. No wonder he’s teary-eyed for half the show.
Then there’s the young half-Filipino director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), who tries to approach legendary producer Richard “Dick” Samuels (Joe Mantello), a closeted gay man at Ace studios, led temporarily by Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), for a film with Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) as the lead. The film idea gets rejected on the pretext that any film with an Asian lead won’t be well received by the white public. Ainsley is then made to sift through a bunch of anonymous script submissions, eventually choosing Peg – a true story about struggling actor Peg Entwistle’s suicide from the H of the Hollywood sign in 1932 – which happens to be written by Coleman.
The plot thickens when Ainsley decides to cast his girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) as the lead character, with the story now tweaked and renamed Meg. Why the tweak, you ask? Because Washington is a black woman.
Long story short, it gets approved. And filmed. And picketed. And almost cancelled. And then it gets nominated for 5 Academy awards. I can almost hear Jim Parsons’ portrayal of Henry Winson saying here: “There’s something about this ending that bugs me.”
To avoid spoilers, what happens in the Oscars stays in the Oscars (literally, since the ceremony wasn’t filmed back in the day). But what’s important is everyone finds a reason to be happy in the end. Except the Ku Klux Klan, who make a couple of cameos in the show with their burning crosses and general racism.
‘A Hollywood Ending’, the show’s last episode is a poignant imagination of an alternate history for a Hollywood that looks very different, because a few people stood up for what they believed in, despite being aware of potentially destructive consequences. The studio risked going bankrupt, those involved risked being jobless, and some – like Coleman and his boyfriend Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – risked being burnt to death by the KKK.
The triumph of the show is found not in its technicality or probability, but in its bold recreation of a world that believes in the power of “What if?” and “Why not?”. A world where a sense of identity is more important than fame or money. And certainly not a world where the US President wonders why a foreign film (Parasite) won the Oscars, calling for the days of Gone With the Wind to come back.
In the last episode, Hattie MacDaniel, who was the first person of colour to win an Oscar for that very film, tells a hopeful Camille Washington after she gets nominated: “It ain’t about whether you win or lose. There’s something more important at stake here… What’s important is being in the room.”
Netflix’s Hollywood gives us front row seats in this momentous room to watch the ending we deserve. One small screen depiction of an award show, one giant dream for an industry.