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Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show tries to fix Hollywood’s history

It’s an overcrowded alternate-universe fantasy that casually cures racism and sexism

A woman in a silver gown stands onstage behind a microphone. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Golden Age film actress Anna May Wong deserves better than what she gets from Netflix’s new Ryan Murphy series, Hollywood. The Chinese-American actress was a significant onscreen presence in an era where actors of color were rare. She appeared in many early pre-Hays Code crime and mystery films, like 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon and 1937’s Daughter of Shanghai, earning particular praise for her role in 1932’s Shanghai Express, opposite Marlene Dietrich. Decades before conversations about diversity in entertainment became the norm, Wong was the first Asian-American to star in a television show, as the titular character in 1951’s The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

The second episode of Murphy’s new alt-history period piece introduces aspiring film director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) as he’s visiting Wong (Michelle Krusiec) at her home. She wasn’t offered many jobs during World War II, and she still resents being replaced by a white actress in yellowface for an Oscar-winning role in an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.

Sitting with her, Ainsley confides that he’s also Asian-American. Though his mother is Filipino (like Criss’ actual mother), he’s able to pass as white in Hollywood. He wants to use his privilege to get a foot in the door at the fictional Ace Studios, and make a movie starring Wong that he’s sure will rehabilitate her career.

Darren Criss, in a grey tailored suit, stands over a smirking Michelle Krusiec, sitting cross-legged in a plush chair. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

An alternate history where Ainsley makes Wong a star, as they both navigate America’s racism through an Asian-American lens, would be fascinating, a story well worth telling. The problem is, as with so many Ryan Murphy projects, this strong idea is just one thread in an overcrowded story. By the time Hollywood gets to the Wong subplot, it’s Hollywood’s third major interesting idea. And though the miniseries only has seven hourlong episodes to work with, it isn’t the last great idea, either.

Hollywood’s pilot introduces Jack Castello (newcomer David Corenswet), an aspiring actor who gets a job at a gas station that turns out to be a front for a high-end prostitution ring servicing the Hollywood elite. It’s run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), a silver fox ex-actor with a troubling hacking cough. Jack’s most loyal client is Avis Amberg (a stunning Patti LuPone), the wife of Ace Studios head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). Also featured: Archie (Jeremy Pope) a Black aspiring screenwriter who’s sent Ace Studios a blind script submission about Peg Entwistle — a biopic about the young actress who died by suicide after jumping off the H of the Hollywood(land) sign after being cut from a film. Archie is one of Ernie’s escorts, but unlike Jack, Archie prefers male clients — which leads him to a serious relationship with a young actor named Roy Scherer, soon to be known as Rock Hudson.

And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that Archie’s Peg Entwistle flick eventually morphs into a very different fim— a “race picture” now starring Ainsley’s beau, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier, who proved her ample talents in BlackKklansman), who pushes for the idea. As with the introduction of Anna May Wong, this story about a Black studio contract player finally getting her big Lena Horne-esque break would have made for an interesting seven episodes. But Hollywood reveals nothing about Camille, except that she’s talented and beautiful. She has no backstory or personal history, aside from being Ainsley’s girlfriend. It’s strange, given the time, that colorism is never brought up — Harrier is darker-skinned than Horne, and that would have been a definite barrier to film entry in the 1940s. So would her open relationship with a man perceived to be white. The latter is mentioned a few times in passing fashion, but the series doesn’t contend with any of this. Race is at Hollywood’s forefront, but it isn’t explored with any particular care or awareness.

An older black woman in a conservative peach dress speaks to a younger black woman in a bridesmaid’s-style peach dress in front of a group of hanging coats. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Pose collaborator Janet Mock wrote two episodes of Hollywood, and her scripts’ tonal shift toward more realistic portrayals of racism is noticeable, while still adding to the show’s unevenness. Murphy and Ian Brennan wrote the rest of the show, and the single thing uniting all the threads they’re desperately weaving together is their clear desire to fix Hollywood, and write the wrongs suffered by everyone in the business who wasn’t a straight white man. In the pilot, Jack even states the show’s thesis outright: “Movies don’t just show us the way the world is, they show us how the world could be.” That’s all well and good, but fixing the problems of Hollywood’s Golden Age unfortunately requires the same things fixing Hollywood would require today; namely, getting rid of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

No worries, though — Murphy and Brennan are on it. In Hollywood, the only thing marginalised people need is the backing of a few plucky white folks willing to validate their voices and ideas, as well as their race and sexuality. But when the white characters solve absolutely every problem presented, the agency of the non-white characters disappears. They’re, essentially reduced to pawns moved around the board by more powerful people. Murphy is clearly well-meaning but he’s flirted with both tokenism and the white savior trope before. His hit high-school musical Glee never seemed to know what to do with its talented Black and Asian performers, like Amber P. Riley, Harry Schum Jr., and Jenna Ushkowitz.. Riley’s character Mercedes, for instance, had no backstory, no homelife, and no notable characteristics, aside from the powerhouse voice typically associated with a Black church sound.

Watching Lupone swan sublimely through scene after scene is wonderful, but it’s tempered by the way her character spends so much of her time in the back half of this miniseries being praised and thanked by the people of color under her. Avis and her Ace Studios coworkers, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kinkaid (Holland Taylor), are the white-savior trope personified, but Murphy, Brennan, and their characters don’t seem to grasp this. And with so many of the storylines teasing a more nuanced look at discrimination in entertainment, the tone-deafness becomes one of Hollywood’s major failings.

Darren Criss, fully dressed in a suit, crouches in Laura Harrier’s bubble bath with her as she responds eagerly to something he’s saying. Photo: Netflix

And strangely, in spite of the show’s focus on discrimination, anti-Semitism is never mentioned — even though Avis, Ace, and their daughter Claire ( Samara Weaving) are revealed as Jewish in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion late in the season, and even though the series takes place literally months after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Avis and Claire are depicted as struggling purely because they’re women. (And in Claire’s case, because she’s a studio head’s daughter, poor thing.) Given the Ku Klux Klan’s place in Hollywood’s story, even the faintest mention of the group’s notorious anti-Semetism could have given both characters more depth.

No one wants to watch a show about marginalised people who exist solely to be mired in their social struggles. The suffering-minority trope wasn’t fresh even when it showed up in the melodramas of Hollywood’s era, like in both versions of Imitation of Life. But it’s frustrating to see bigotry casually dismissed as an easy barrier to overcome. Hollywood characters come out as gay with relative ease. Studio execs’ minds are easily changed when they worry putting Camille in a lead role, and the one holdout is conveniently persuaded by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. The white executives even invent the concept of the wide release for the film’s benefit, prompting more thanks.

And when a spark of intrigue is finally introduced and it seems as though the lead players won’t get what they want with ease, the cliffhanger of one episode is miraculously erased within the first few minutes of the next. You’ll never again see Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings receive such a tepid response, or be as quickly forgotten, as they are in Hollywood.

There are ways to acknowledge the realities of bigotry being without making hardships the only things going on in the lives of marginalized characters. Murphy and his team do this incredibly well on Pose, which is perhaps why Mock’s episodes of Hollywood feel slightly more grounded in reality than the rest of the series. On Pose, Mock has pointed out that because the show’s leads are trans women, they don’t have to “defend their identities” or go above and beyond to teach cisgender people a lesson. “They are just trans women who live their lives in gritty, dirty, messy-ass 1980s New York City.” This means that while Pose certainly masterfully deals with topics like the AIDS crisis, hardship doesn’t define the characters’ entire existence. With all Hollywood’s pointed references to real-world events (the Good Earth controversy, Peg Entwistle, Vivian Leigh’s bipolar episodes, the success of films like The Wizard of Oz, and more), Murphy and company clearly aren’t making a pure movieland fantasy.

A white woman and a black woman in form-fitting red outfits cross a parking lot, in front of four men in white jackets, black ties, and peaked khaki garrison hats. Photo: Saeed Adyani

If they were, Hollywood’s mishmash of storylines and characters might be more palatable. It might be more plausible that an old white man in 1946 took it upon himself to save a “race film” from being destroyed, and aid it into a wide theatrical release. Uneven moments in the script could be overlooked, such as when Camille has to fight her way into her assigned front row seat at the Oscars ceremony (taking advice from Hattie McDaniel, played perfectly via a surprise cameo), even though Archie and Rock Hudson, who are booed as they walk the red carpet hand in hand, had no problems reaching their seats.

But it’s unclear whose story this latest Netflix offering is trying to tell, and it suffers from Murphy and company stuffing too many ideas into too little space. That problem has plagued Murphy for much of his career. His projects trend toward greatness when his involvement is minimal, and the diverse creators in the room are allowed to focus his many ideas. Perhaps the greatest example is his strong, specific miniseries, The People v. OJ Simpson, which he executive-produced without writing an episode. His hands are all over Hollywood — his writing credit is on every episode — and he brought all his usual flaws along with him.