“Hollywood,” a new limited series from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, is an aspirational fantasy set in 1947 in a Hollywood that never was. Like time travelers heading into the past to improve the future, they aim to reset history, to liberate the picture business from racial and sexual prejudice decades before the picture business got around to considering it: We want the world and we want it ... then.
“I want to take the story of Hollywood and give it a rewrite,” says black screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) to director Ray Ainsley (Darren Criss), a Filipino American passing as white. “So maybe someday soon you ain’t a half-Asian director who feels he has to hide it; you’ll just be a director and … I’ll just be a writer. Wouldn’t that be something?” Ray wants to direct Archie’s script, “Peg,” the story of actress Peg Entwistle, who famously jumped from the Hollywood sign in the early 1930s, and whose story we are meant to regard as emblematic of the cruelty of a short-sighted industry. (“The town wouldn’t accept her,” Archie says of Entwistle. “I know the feeling.”)
Murphy previously concocted a traditional show business double-biopic “Feud: Bette and Joan,” about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but this is something different: an alternate history, like one of those speculative dramas where the United States has lost to Nazi Germany (see: “The Man in the High Castle”) or its surrogates (see: “The Plot Against America”), but in reverse — as if, say, Hitler got run over by a truck on the eve of war and Germany overnight became a peaceful bastion of inclusiveness. And as a partly accurate fable of Hollywood, it’s also like a couple of Coen Brothers films, but with farce and satire swapped out for melodrama and sentiment. Or a version of “Sunset Boulevard” in which the close-up Norma Desmond is ready for is in a big-budget major motion picture.
The fantastic nature of the story isn’t obvious at first, but there is something about the clean and creamy production values, the theatrical dialogue and the slightly to substantially larger-than-life performances that announce from the start that we are not quite in our world. It’s a movie reality, with situations and characters imported from old backstage dramas and clichés so obvious I can only imagine that we’re meant to regard them with knowing affection: When someone coughs into a handkerchief, the confession of a wasting disease cannot be far behind. There is a good deal of speechifying — indeed, the finale is made up of literal speeches — to make big points and to let the actors run.
Among a host of invented characters and celebrity look-alikes are two real-life figures at the center of the action: Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), a good-looking, good-natured unformed lump later known as Rock Hudson, and talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who gave him that name. (Willson, who tells Hudson “You smell like milk,” is portrayed as bitter and sexually exploitative but lonely and frustrated too; he’s a sort of half-villain.) A third character, Ernie West (Dylan McDermott, going big), is inspired by the late Scotty Bowers, who ran a drive-through brothel out of a Hollywood gas station, for a mostly gay, sometimes famous clientele. Hollywood’s big closet — pretty fancy, but a closet still — is a theme here.
Working for Ernie is Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a hunk not long out of the service who has been angling to break into movies. (He is a sort of straight counterpart to Rock/Roy; they overlap.) His pregnant wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow) works as a waitress at Schwab’s (perfectly reconstructed) and has little attention paid to her either by Jack or the script. She is allowed a big scene near the end, which only underscores the fact that she has been employed to that point largely as a millstone.
Also working for Ernie, recruited by Jack, is Archie, who falls into a relationship with Rock, a new customer. Ray is living with actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), who is black and under contract at Ace Studios, run by loud, uncouth Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner, having fun), whose wife, Avis (Patti LuPone), is one of Jack’s clients. Their daughter, Claire (Samara Weaving), is also under contract at the studio, but under an assumed name, as if nobody there would recognize the boss’s daughter. Well, they don’t.
Together with the sometime participation of historical actors of color Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), they form a band of outsiders fighting for recognition, representation and artistic control. (Even LuPone’s mogul’s wife is a reject: “Nobody thought that a Jewish girl could be a movie star; nobody thought they were pretty.”) Along with friendly studio executives played by Holland Taylor and Joe Mantello, all are involved in one way or another with “Peg.” Much of the business of “Hollywood” revolves around the question of whether Camille can play the title character — the bruited solution is, hilariously, to change her name to “Meg.” (Though Archie is worried at first that making Camille the lead will turn it into “a message picture,” he’s already a character in one.)
“A few months ago, you were a contract player,” Claire says to Jack, once things get going for him, “and now you’re part of an incredible ensemble of artists who aren’t just making a movie, they’re making history.” I would note that none of them has ever made a movie before, and none of them is Orson Welles. But this is that kind of 1947 Hollywood.
Even as it sticks pins in its subject, “Hollywood” insists on its power. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is,” says Ray, raising a metaphorical banner. “They show us how the world can be.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) is brought in to attest that motion pictures can move mountains where “good government” cannot. As to the question of casting Camille, Roosevelt wonders what seeing her up on the big screen “might mean to a dirt-poor little black girl living in a shanty in some cotton town where she’s told she is free but really her life is no better than that of her own grandparents.”
The exact degree of ironic self-awareness here is hard to reckon, but “Hollywood,” for all its exaggerations, feels sincere — as if Murphy is building the past that would have created the world he would have preferred to grow up in. Yet it’s this very sincerity, even generosity — its best features, really — that keep the series from being lifelike, and, indeed, can make it seem a little ridiculous. “Hollywood” is determined to deliver good outcomes to its characters; it’s a fixed game, and while it’s easy enough to watch, and to sympathize with its desire to liberate a repressive age, it has little urgency. No one will be jumping off the Hollywood sign here. The only question is just how far Murphy and Brennan are going to take their orgy of wish fulfillment; the answer is all the way — which is a sort of courage, I suppose. (To dream the impossible dream, and all that.) The last episode is titled “Hollywood Ending,” so, you know, they’re not shy about it.
When: Any time, starting Friday