The 7-episode limited series Hollywood, Murphy’s second project at , premieres May 1. Co-created by Ian Brennan (), the dramedy imagines a reality where society’s underdogs (African-Americans, Asians, homosexuals, women) are able to make it big in post-War Tinseltown. EW TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich debate the merits of Murphy and Brennan's revisionist take on showbiz history.
A desperate Jack takes a job as a pump jockey/gigolo at a service station — a full-service station, if you will — called Golden Tip Gasoline. (Did we mention this is a Ryan Murphy show?) The gig serves dual purposes: It gives Hollywood an excuse to strip Corenswet down to his skivvies in the premiere and leads Jack to cross paths with the other key characters: Archie (Jeremy Pope), a black, gay screenwriter; Avis Amberg ( LuPone), the neglected wife of a studio mogul (and Jack’s first client); Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), a shy, closeted hunk destined to become Hudson; and Raymond Ainsely ( Criss), an earnest, half-Asian director hoping to lure actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) out of retirement.
A lot of what I enjoyed about Hollywood is based in history, as the show weaves real-life figures into its reimagining of the studio era. Parsons is a mercurial wonder as Henry Willson, the brutal, high-powered agent (and closeted homosexual) who turns bumbling Roy into marquee star Rock Hudson through sheer force of will (and compulsory dental work). The second episode dives into Wong’s real-life backstory as a rising Asian-American star who nonetheless lost the lead role in The Good Earth — a Chinese woman named O-Lan — to a white actress. I found myself hopping online to read more about Willson and Wong and Hattie McDaniel (played here by Latifah), the first black Oscar winner… and truth be told, I think a take on these real stories might have been more compelling than the fairy tale Murphy and Brennan delivered.
DARREN: Historical revision was the great project of Ryan Murphy’s last decade. The producer’s FX anthologies were essential American counter-myths, real and imagined and always table-flippingly vivid, from the nightmarish outcast fantasia of American Horror Story: Asylum to the epic resurrection of Marcia Clark’s reputation in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Electric currents of nostalgic camp fused with unabashed progressivism in period extravaganzas like and Feud. Murphy’s failures could be abject — see the grotesquely synthetic Queens or any Story past Hotel — but there’s a reason both made room for his successes on our Best TV of the Decade lists, Kristen.
But I’ll tell you the exact moment Hollywood lost me. Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris) comes to Ace Studios, a saint sent to assure the main characters they’re doing the Lord’s work. “I used to believe good government could change the world,” she explains. “I don’t know that I believe that anymore. However, what you do? The three of you can change the world.” There’s a secret cynicism in there: A lifelong Democratic activist, who in actual 1947 was drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parachutes in to assure the characters that they’re heroic heroes doing heroism. I do believe movies can change the world, but it’s a complex process, never quite moving from point A to point B. Something about Hollywood’s grinning simplicity — its crushing certainty that good people make good art that earns good money and is good for society — left me cold.
KRISTEN: I’m not going to argue that the storytelling isn’t sometimes too facile — especially in the final episode, which is literally called “A Hollywood Ending” and is appropriately pat. But I appreciate the sentiment of what Hollywood is trying to do. The idea that a black woman (Laura Harrier’s Camille) could star in a major motion picture in 1947, that Rock Hudson could have lived his life as an out gay man and still be a star, that a woman would get the chance to run a movie studio 16 years before JFK signed the Equal Pay Act — there’s a simple beauty in imagining all of those things, even if the emphasis is on simple.
DARREN: To be as outrageously blunt as Henry Willson: It is really so bad! I prefer Punk Rock Ryan Murphy, I guess, and it's striking to consider Hollywood in the towering shadow of Asylum, a gutbucket masterpiece that conjures its own vision of outsider community with hyperbole and heartbreak. That second American Horror Story anthology arrived in 2012, and eight years later only one thing about it has aged: The Nazi got topical, god damn him.
Kristen's Grade: B
Darren's Grade: C