Blissful and unsatisfying: Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ falls flat

by Alice Jenner |

Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ is the latest series to follow the director’s impressive successes such as ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘Glee’ and ‘Scream Queens.’ Unsurprisingly, ‘Hollywood’ was much anticipated, boasting some of Murphy’s favoured collaborators (Darren Criss, Dylan McDermott, Patti LuPone), as well as sunny shots of Los Angeles alongside a 1950’s soundtrack and aesthetic. After the success of ‘La La Land’ in 2017, I was expecting ‘Hollywood’ to be similar — a bittersweet young adult story exposing the film industry as cruel, but ultimately rewarding. I’d argue it delivers more depth to begin with; a delightfully unconventional cast of old and young portray diverse characters who we grow to love, or love to hate. Unfortunately, ‘Hollywood’ falls into an odd trap of its own creation by changing direction drastically in the second half of the series.

Murphy provides us with a number of characters trying to ‘make it,’ and some who have the power to make new stars. The fictional movie ‘Meg,’ is formulated early on, and will be the first mainstream film to credit a black female lead actress and black screenwriter. The early plot sees the characters having to fight for the production and roles of ‘Meg,’ acknowledging the racism, sexism and homophobia entrenched in 1950s Hollywood.

the final episode seemed too good to be true…

These issues are explored thoroughly in the middle episodes, where peaks and troughs show the impact of repeated rejection, denial and exploitation. A particular standout is when Jeremy Pope’s character, Archie, breaks down after hearing the production company wants to take his name off the movie, rather than credit a black screenwriter. We see how the industry’s prejudice is nullifying his talent and identity, as Archie explains how he tried to write an acceptable ‘white’ script, yet still the ‘folks in charge’ refuse him and he has no choice but to be ‘civil’.

At the end of the scene, he tells Camille (Laura Harrier) that he hopes she gets the main role and can present a black female protagonist. This moment illustrates the impact of the industry’s discrimination, using Murphy’s trademark of a handheld camera to signal personal vulnerability, and excellent acting from Pope and Harrier to help the audience understand how revolutionary ‘Meg’ would be if it made it through production.

It is such scenes that achieve significant depth and meaning in ‘Hollywood.’ However, while we want to see Archie’s story made, it’s surprising when characters previously caricatured as corporate figures who didn’t care about ‘Meg,’ conversely develop support for it in a couple episodes time. A lucky mixture of speedy character development and change in hierarchies enables an unbelievable success over obstacles we were told were significant barriers. Murphy glosses over the uphill battle he describes in the earliest episodes as Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), purely through luck, finds herself with power and money to favour the struggling Hollywood hopefuls.

‘Hollywood’s’ ending flat lines into blissful but unsatisfying plateau

As satisfying as the characters’ success is, ‘Meg’s unclouded positive reception in the final episode seemed too good to be true, to the point where I was certain the last few minutes would reveal the (spoilers!) all round Oscar sweep to have all just been a dream, as per Hollywood cliché. Such a collapse in the story line I believe would have aided Murphy, ‘Hollywood’ could have theorised an alternative reality were equal opportunity and representation in film began in the fifties. Knowing this wasn’t the case and not seeing it recognised by the series felt like a let-down, especially after showing how Hollywood’s most powerful would reject non-white filmmakers, homosexual themes and female authority.

If it was clear that ‘Meg’s success was an alternative history, depicting what could have happened decades earlier if executives had supported equal representation, ‘Hollywood’ could have been taken as a powerful message to the film industry of 2020. As is, despite a talented cast and cinematography which expertly recalls the era it depicts, ‘Hollywood’s’ ending flat lines into blissful but unsatisfying plateau.