That’s the blunt message of Ryan Murphy’s grandiose yet often captivating Netflix drama “Hollywood”: If the town is built on make-believe and big dreams, then let us now make believe that a few of its producers, writers and directors somehow became woke 70 years or so ahead of schedule, thus altering the postwar trajectory of cinema’s Golden Age.
Why not give the dream back to those who never had a chance to win it — the black screenwriter, the secretly gay heartthrob, the mixed-race director who wants to cast his black girlfriend in a leading role? What if a studio head got an emphatic snap-to on civil rights from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt and started greenlighting pictures that defied conventional wisdom, as well as Jim Crow? Woulda, coulda and definitely shoulda.
Co-created by Murphy and “Glee” and “Scream Queens” collaborator Ian Brennan, “Hollywood” (streaming Friday) is a pure fantasy writ as large as the iconic hillside sign that serves as this story’s big, fat metaphor. About halfway through, it will dawn on a viewer that the most provocative part of “Hollywood” is not its sauciness; it’s that the show fully intends to hand out happy endings the way Oprah used to give away cars.
Fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis might have bellowed in this parallel universe, it’s going to be an incredibly smooth night.
“Hollywood” opens with a wide-eyed Midwesterner, Jack Castello (David Corenswet), who returns from the war and moves to L.A. with his dutiful wife, Henrietta (Maude Apatow), hoping to turn his good looks into boffo box-office. First, he must get in line (literally) at the fabled gates of Ace Studios, where a lucky few are picked each day to play extras in movies.
After some setbacks, Jack meets Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), who hires him to pump gas at his popular filling station, where Jack soon learns that when customers pull up and ask to go to “Dreamland,” that’s the attendant’s cue to hop in the car and go have sex with them — splitting a top-dollar fee with Ernie.
Jack eagerly acquiesces when the customers are well-to-do women — including Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the tough but tenderhearted wife of Ace Studios founder Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). But when Jack is asked to have sex with a man (Cole Porter, who doesn’t like to be kept waiting), he balks. Jack then meets Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), an aspiring gay, black screenwriter, who agrees to split Jack’s workload between them: Jack has sex with the women; Archie handles the men.
“Hollywood” has an unsuccessfully nuanced degree of ambivalence about Ernie’s operation, in which sex work is portrayed as a means to an end, and which the series all but rousingly endorses — while at the same time deploring the old ways of perverted agents, casting-couch ogres and gruelingly strict beauty standards.
The show’s plot hardly leaves time to sort through these moral ambiguities, as the characters begin to intersect and compare their common goals. A series of chance meetings triggers a mini-revolution in the studio, in the bedrooms and in the general celebresphere of yore.
Archie’s screenplay, based on the real-life 1932 suicide of actress Peg Entwistle (she jumped off the “H” in the Hollywoodland sign), gets the attention of a rising director, Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), who pitches it to an intimidating but receptive Ace executive, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello). Dick’s growing enthusiasm for the idea is matched by his chief co-conspirator, Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor), the studio’s discerning head of casting.
Archie, meanwhile, falls in love with one of his gas-pump regulars — a lunkheaded but awfully nice (and closeted) aspiring actor named Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking). Roy signs on with the cruelest and most sexually and verbally abusive agent in town, Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), whose first order of business is to change Roy’s name to . . . Rock Hudson.
There’s a lot of that kind of thing in “Hollywood” — a supercollider of fiction and fact, sure to shatter your curious Google searches into atomic shards. When we’re not killing time at the legendary Schwab’s Pharmacy soda fountain, we’re off to George Cukor’s debauched Sunday dinner parties, with great, flouncified cameos from Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Vivien Leigh, among other surprises. (Try to keep up! Wikipedia won’t help!)
“Hollywood” is more than just a personality parade, however, and it’s soon clear that Murphy, Brennan and company have something better in mind for LuPone than just minks, turbans and moods. It’s a toss-up as to who has more fun with their roles — her or Parsons. Both are terrific, while everyone else just seems boundlessly high on the fumes of putting on a show. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle in “Hollywood” that keeps it humming along, even as it overpreaches. At an efficiently brisk seven episodes, it’s nobody’s idea of a dull time.
The central crisis comes down to whether Ace Studios will have the courage to see Raymond’s vision through, reimagining Entwistle’s tragic life as that of “Meg,” now written as the story of a young black actress — whom Raymond’s girlfriend, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), would very much like to play — yearning for parts that aren’t merely maids and servants. Meg is worn down by Hollywood’s intolerant typecasting and ready to end it all.
In this regard, “Hollywood” turns out to be more or less the story of being Ryan Murphy, circa 2020, leveraging his own clout into an equal break for others, reaching down as he’s reaching up, using those increasingly bigger deals (now with Netflix) to remedy long held biases about the stories we tell and the stories we see. “Hollywood’s” most graceful note is one viewers already understand, perhaps thanks to a show like “Glee” or “Pose” — it’s that intense satisfaction of seeing “someone like me” represented on the screen or at awards shows.
The series is not always successful in its attempt to braid its socially conscious message with its fanboy nostalgia for old-school glamour, but, as with so much of Murphy’s TV work, the buckets of exuberance come in handy for patching the cracks. Beyond the show’s optimism and mixed signals, a question remains unanswered, perhaps deliberately so: How can moviegoers and TV viewers still love and worship this thing — Hollywood — that has treated them so poorly for so long?
Hollywood (seven episodes) is available for streaming Friday on Netflix.