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Netflix's Hollywood Is a Retro Fantasy That Asks Us to Dream Different

Who says we can't go back in time to get it right?

Malcolm Venable

There's an interesting idea at the heart of Hollywood, the new Netflix series from Ryan Murphy and Glee co-creator Ian Brennan: What if it had gone down differently?

It takes a couple of episodes for the disorienting radicalness of this premise to gel, largely because, at the start at least, we're thrust into a reality that's fairly close to actual reality -- characters based on real people mingle with characters made just for the show. We meet Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who operates a gas station that's also a brothel serving Hollywood's elite and wealthy who are in the closet. (That really happened.) Jack Costello (David Corenswet), a (fictional) rookie actor looking to get his big break, takes a gig at the whorehouse, and it's there that he meets (fictional) aspiring screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), whose skin color and sexual orientation make his dreams impossible. Across town, we peek inside the studios that make motion pictures, and get to see the racism, blackmail, down-low sex, nepotism, and patriarchal oppression that greases the wheels in Hollywood.

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But as the story unfurls and more characters enter the equation -- including (fictional) aspiring director Raymond (Darren Criss), (real) closeted sleazy agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), (real) actor Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), and (fictional) black actress Camille (Laura Harrier) -- the story slips deeper and deeper into fantasy. Without giving too much away, all these people become enmeshed in a plot to make a movie about Peg Entwistle, the (real) actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932, but they're stalled by prejudice and rules that keep LGBTQ people and folks of color locked out of the system.

Midway through the season however, winds blow in such a way that Avis (Patti LuPone) -- the pampered, sexually frustrated wife of a studio head -- becomes the studio head and dynamic changes take place. Despite being a tough, jaded broad immune to emotion, she gradually becomes a champion for other women, for people of color, and for the gay people in her orbit. Hollywood climbs further and further into unbelievability as the minutes tick by, and by its crescendo, the "losers" get the wins they deserved. Like Glee, Hollywood puts outcasts at the forefront. It's wish fulfillment porn, and, particularly in the back half, such an incredulous utopia that it seems absurd and perhaps a little frustrating.

But I came to realize that there's a reason Hollywood's fantasizing sometimes feel hard to swallow: We are jaded. We're so accustomed to injustice and the powers that be crushing little people, that challenging the idea of "that's just the way things are" is threatening, even in revisionist fiction. Scripted drama is, by definition, unrealistic; for factual accounts, we read books or watch documentaries. Usually when Murphy revisits the past -- The People v. O.J. Simpson; Feud; The Assassination of Gianni Versace -- the material looks for insights we might've missed that are relevant now. Hollywood asks us to think about how we all might be better today had the past been different. It's odd but daring storytelling, but, hey, if you've got the creative freedom and reserves of cash only Netflix can offer, why not experiment? Lord knows there are enough ordinary shows to watch, if that's what you want.

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Not all of Hollywood goes down smoothly: The natural by-product of all this goodness means giving up some tension, and stakes. But it's certainly endearing, and entertaining -- particularly when you howl at Parsons' shocking dialogue, coo over the exquisite costumes, and see LuPone do her thing. (All the actors, it must be said, are competent and strong -- they have to be, to pull off something so unusual.) As Murphy knows firsthand, the TV and movie industries only just started showing any real efforts toward inclusivity; we only saw a major film starring a black superhero two years ago. Hollywood is a retro fairy tale -- a progressive, partly preposterous semi-lucid dream in which the underdogs actually win. It's unbelievable but sumptuous, just like all fairy tales should be.

TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix.

Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, Darren Criss, David Corenswet, Hollywood

Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, Darren Criss, David Corenswet, Hollywood