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Review: Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ tells an idealistic, entertaining alternate history

“I want to take the story of Hollywood and give it a rewrite.”

In the second episode of “Hollywood,” Archie Coleman sits at a smokey bar in Los Angeles detailing grand plans for a career in Tinseltown to director Raymond Ainsley. But Archie, played by breakout Broadway star Jeremy Pope, is gay and Black – not exactly a winning combination for an aspiring screenwriter in post-World War II Hollywood.

In Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix limited series, though, Archie and all the other systemically oppressed groups are given a chance to flip the script on the Hollywood machine. Murphy’s foray into revisionist history peels back the curtain on what the entertainment industry could have looked like if the unfair power dynamics had been challenged – and the series does it in a way that’s equally wistful, inspiring and entertaining.

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Jeremy Pope as Archie Coleman, Darren Criss as Raymond Ainsley and David Corenswet as Jack Castello in “Hollywood.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Mixing real-life entertainment icons with aspiring fictional characters, “Hollywood” initially tells the story of the extremes it takes to succeed in the industry, before ultimately pivoting to what it should have taken to be a star. Hint: It’s being the best – not the whitest, straightest or richest.

At its start, the series bounces around between a number of seemingly standalone stories of budding creatives desperate for stardom. There’s Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a World War II vet determined to break into the Hollywood scene – even if it means hustling as a sex worker to pay the bills while his pregnant wife sits at home. There’s Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), the director, who finds success only because of his ability to mask his half-Filipino heritage behind light skin, but his African American girlfriend isn’t as lucky. Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), is an actress with everything it takes to be a star, except the right skin color. Then there’s the real-life Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), aka Roy Fitzgerald, a chiseled Illinois transplant who fits the tough guy bill at first glance, but is hiding his relationship with screenwriter Archie Coleman.

Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan take their time with each character, developing their backstories and identities, allowing audiences to get to know them individually before delicately nudging everyone together. As the series progresses, the hopefuls cross paths with industry elites – both friendly, and not so kind – until their storylines are all intricately interwoven on the set of a new motion picture, “Meg.”

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Jeremy Pope as Archie Coleman in “Hollywood.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In a stellar cast that also includes legends like Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor and current stars like Jim Parsons, it’s Pope who truly stands out in his first-ever TV role. As Archie struggles in the face of racism and homophobia, Pope delivers emotional scenes time and time again showing vulnerability and resoluteness in the face of oppression. After spending time on Broadway, Pope’s ability to hold the camera should come as no surprise – and we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of it soon.

However, it’s worth noting that Parsons, who plays real-life agent Henry Willson, does the most with what he’s given. As a secondary character, the conniving and cutthroat talent scout doesn’t have as many scenes, but when he is onscreen, Parsons is throwing heaters. This isn’t Dr. Sheldon Cooper – Willson is a manipulative, power-hungry monster with few redeeming qualities, and Parsons instantly brings that evil to life. It’s safe to say he has the best pound-for-pound performance considering his limited appearances.

First Look at Netflix's "Hollywood"
Jim Parsons as Henry Willson in “Hollywood.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In order to find the message at the core of “Hollywood,” you don’t have to look any further than each episode’s intro. As the cast climbs its way up the back of the Hollywoodland sign, everyone lends a hand to help pull their co-stars to the top. Together, they make it.

Murphy’s idealism isn’t any more subtle once each episode begins, but it doesn’t need to be. Everyone knows Hollywood, and the world, would be a better place if systematic oppression was challenged. He’s just letting us escape into a delightful version of what could have been – and, hopefully, can still be.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5

“Hollywood” premieres May 1 on Netflix.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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