TV review: Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is a glitter-covered confusion

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★★☆☆☆

Ryan Murphy is a kooky-creative turned revisionist historian in the glitter-covered confusion of his new series, Hollywood.

Quarantine has made us binge-watch some insane shows. We’ve seen gun-toting red-neck zookeepers wrangle with tigers and contract killers, in the form of Tiger King. We’ve binge-watched Contagion, and other pandemic-related media, hoping that Gwyneth Paltrow might swoop down and offer us a sign of how to combat our coronavirus blues. But nothing can prepare you for the absolute insanity and sexual debauchery of Hollywood, the glitter-covered, fame-addled brainchild of infamous writer and producer, Ryan Murphy.

The show is a revisionist history of the glory days of old Hollywood, rewriting the histories of queer starlets, providing a more comforting view of history than the reality of abuse and exploitation. The show basks in the glamorisation of old Hollywood through a kaleidoscope of sex, full-frontal nudity, and the extreme overconfidence of all those annoying drama kids you knew from school.

At times, the show struggles to decide whether it’s a dark comedy or a joyous, progressive history of Hollywood. There is a Kafkaesque repetition of everyone claiming to be “an actor”, as the cliché continues to ring true in a dizzying array of overwhelming ambitiousness. In the first episode alone, aspiring actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet) is offered a job at a rather unusual service station, run by Ernie (Dylan McDermott). Jack takes the job in the hopes of supporting his pregnant wife, but discovers the service station serves far more than oil and petrol. The service station masks a prostitution ring, where the rich and powerful of Hollywood employ young hopefuls to join them for sex. And just like that, in less than 15 minutes of the show’s opening, Jack becomes a prostitute.

As exemplified in Hollywood, many of Ryan Murphy’s projects have an air of mystery, emanating from both the show’s dubious quality, and the macabre nature of the actual show itself. His shows are infamously hit-or-miss; when he hits, he creates beautiful, intricately crafted historical senes, captured in outfit and atmospheres, such as his vibrant and honest retelling of the ballroom culture in Pose. But, when he misses, he dives head-first into hyperbole, with a lack of subtlety and depth to works such as The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and the eventual failure of American Horror Story. On this occasion, Hollywood is set to find itself on Ryan Murphy’s miss list.

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Amidst this array of lukewarm releases, we see Ryan Murphy’s attempts to present a “woke” 1940s world, in which the harsh realities of show business are brushed aside, in favour of inclusivity and acceptance. We see the alternative histories of Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), who rises to fame despite struggles against homophobia. We see Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), the first black woman to win an Academy Award, act as a role model to other aspiring black actors. Not to mention, we see more naked male bodies in one scene of Hollywood, than we would at a particularly raunchy Bachelorette Party.

In Hollywood, Murphy plays an optimistic historian, tirelessly attempting to reason with the gruesome elements of the past, imposing our present-day progressive values on a world far removed from any seismic, social change even akin to 21st-century ideals. But, how helpful is this truly in addressing corruption in Hollywood, both past and present?

Looking to our film industry today, not much has changed from 1940s Hollywood in terms of exploitation and diversity. There is still a significant lack of female directors and writers, as well as a lack of BAME creatives both behind and in front of the camera. After the #MeToo movement, it is hard to argue that exploitation is a thing of the past. Watching Hollywood fails in its attempts to reassure viewers that progress has been made since the show’s era.

All of this, of course, has great potential to set itself up as a historically-based dark comedy, and yet falls flat in its struggle to reconcile aspirations to be “woke” with its desire to be comedic and enthrallingly beautiful. Due to this indecisiveness, we are greeted with a high-budget, low-quality TV series, that fails to please anyone in its attempts to do everything. Although made with the best intentions, Murphy misses once more.

If you want a bit of the old razzle-dazzle, then Hollywood is currently streaming on Netflix.


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Hope Talbot

TV, film and culture writer interested in all things visual. Be it the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, the films of Wes Anderson and Studio Ghibli, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's beautiful face, I'll write about.