F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished, posthumously published, might-have-been-a-masterpiece novel "The Last Tycoon" has become a TV series, premiering Friday on Amazon. It’s the studio’s second work of Fitzgeraldiana this year, after the fine Scott-and-Zelda bio-series “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” make of that what you will.
As edited for publication in 1941 by Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald's tale of art and commerce, professional jealousy and love lost and found and lost comprises six draft chapters, a prospective synopsis of the back half of the novel and sundry notes, including the quote for which the novelist is perhaps most famous: "There are no second acts in American lives." No second acts, maybe, but nine episodes to start and who knows how many seasons to follow?
As re-created by Billy Ray ("Captain Phillips," "The Hunger Games"), the Amazon "Tycoon" borrows characters and situations from the novel and has its own way with them. It's as if "Moby Dick," say, were made into a series in which Ahab and Ishmael and Queequeg and the gang — Moby too! — keep on sailing around the world, rescuing shipwrecked sailors, solving crimes, fighting Nazis, putting down mutinies.
Matt Bomer ("White Collar") plays Monroe Stahr, aging Hollywood boy genius with a heart condition. Fitzgerald based Stahr on MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, whose name was synonymous with capital-Q Quality Pictures in his time. Thalberg, oddly enough, is also briefly a character in the series, which proposes a 1930s Hollywood in which there were two aging boy geniuses with heart conditions — they actually run into each other at the cardiologist — in complicated partnership with older bosses. This sort of thing happens in "Doctor Who" all the time, sure, but less often in historical dramas.
Stahr is partners with Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), the odd Irishman out in a business dominated by Jews who loves Stahr like a son and hates him like a rival. Ray gives Brady new plotlines of his own, including a bonus bitter competition with L.B. Mayer (Saul Rubinek), on whom Fitzgerald loosely based Brady. In the series, Brady American Pictures is not a market leader but a struggling second-tier studio teetering from picture to picture on the edge of ruin. As we meet them, they are getting into business with a demanding Benzedrine inhaler-sniffing Shirley Temple knockoff named Sally Sweet, which does not augur well for future success. Or does it?
As in the novel, Stahr encounters a woman, Kathleen (Dominique McElligott, "House of Cards"), who reminds him of his late wife and pursues her. He does not, as on the page, first glimpse her floating on a giant head of Shiva in a backlot flood after an earthquake, because that takes money. Many things happen afterward between them that Fitzgerald did not live long enough to imagine.
Brady has a daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), called Cecilia in the book, which she narrates. She is home from college, full of premature anti-fascism — the news from Germany will be a main thread through the series — and pitches a story to Stahr about Nazi spies in Manhattan; he makes her a producer. (There has been some effort to make the women's parts "interesting" in modern terms.) She also gets involved with Max Miner (Mark O’Brien), an Okie from the homeless encampment next-door to the studio. Why her parents do not pack her straight back to Bennington is one of the series' unexplored mysteries.
Bomer and McElligott are fine individually, but there's no real chemistry between them, and one rarely feels that either has the spark of greatness the series thrusts upon them; indeed, the insistence makes them seem all the more pedestrian. (It feels just possible that someone was thinking of Don Draper and "Mad Men" when this project was coming together, even that "The Last Tycoon" was on someone's mind when "Mad Men" was developed.) Grammer's Brady is most interesting when he's not huffing and puffing and remembers what's good about his life, but he is required frequently to huff and puff, perchance to blow his own house down.
Is this fatal to its entertainment value? Not entirely. Melodrama has its pleasures, and some viewers will doubtless happily be caught in the stories’ myriad threads. And some performances win out over the material, most notably Rosemarie DeWitt as Brady's wife, Rose, who feels complicated and touching and human with whatever dramatic heavy lifting she's asked to do.
And the series does look very good, from its hairdos down to its shoes. If nothing else, “The Last Tycoon” gets my personal thanks for its digital re-creation of a local landscape uninfected by skyscrapers. That is a Hollywood dream I can get behind.
‘The Last Tycoon’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd