When you press play on the series premiere of Netflix’s Hollywood, “Hooray for Hollywood,” premiering Friday, May 1, you’ll probably feel the heat in your home rise several degrees. Don’t worry, it won’t be some freak coolant issue. It will be the moment David Corenswet’s leading man Jack Costello undresses for Avis Amberg (Broadway legend Patti LuPone), Jack’s first client at Hollywood gas station/escort service Golden Tip Gasoline. The camera takes in each of Jack’s movements slowly; each button popped is a promise of pleasure to come. This scene is a seduction of the audience as much as it is one for Avis — co-creator Ryan Murphy, who directed and co-wrote “Hooray,” has built the perfect environment to convince viewers of Jack’s romantic hero potential.
For me, it worked. While Corenswet gets the central thirsty scene in Hollywood’s first chapter, the 1947-set Netflix series — Ryan Murphy’s second and much-improved project for the streamer — makes sure everyone in its gorgeous cast gets a moment in the horny spotlight. With all the beautiful lighting, sumptuous costuming (or lack of costuming), and symmetrical faces, Hollywood is hoping you won’t look away from its seven-episode jaunt through vintage Tinseltown. Then, when it’s really got you, it reveals what this story is truly about: pulling the darkest parts of Hollywood into the light and maybe, just maybe, making them a little less awful.
As with many Hollywood tales, Hollywood initially convinces you it is a story about a handsome, tall white man with great hair and dimples you wish you could swim in: aspiring actor Jack Costello. Jack winds up in Hollywood after serving in World War II, making him an even better poster boy for the image-obsessed Hollywood star system of the late ‘40s. You can practically hear the spin: Not only does Jack have a movie star’s face, he’s a goddamn war hero. Yet, no one is banging down Jack’s door to put him in a picture. Instead, he’s shooed away from production lots, picked over in favour of his far less-dashing friends, and turned down for bank loans — even when he’s wearing his Army best, medals and all.
Unfortunately, Jack has a wife (Euphoria's Maude Apatow) and twins on the way, and he needs money...fast. This motivates him to become part of a rag-tag group of extremely well-coiffed Hollywood dreamers working as escorts at Golden Tip Gas to make ends meet. The station is run by the smarmiest version of American Horror Story’s Dylan McDermott as Ernie, who collects this new generation of Ryan Murphy hunks like Precious Moments figurines. But the twists and turns of watching someone as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as Jack fall in with a shockingly glamorous escort ring (code word “dreamland”) is half the fun, so I won’t spoil the narrative surprises for you.
All of that drama leads Jack to secretly biracial director Raymon Ainsley (Emmy-winner/Murphy golden boy Darren Criss); Black, gay screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope); aspiring actresses Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and Claire Wood (Samara Weaving); and a wide-eyed newbie named Roy Harold Scherer Jr. (Jack Picking), who will go on to be an instantly recognised Name. Each of these characters fall into their own sultry romances, eventually reminding you how much underwear styles have changed over the last 80 years.
The further you get into Hollywood, the more obvious it becomes that Jack is simply your entrypoint into a story about people with far more complicated journeys than beautiful, simple Jack could ever even imagine. While Raymond is constantly talking about his so-called “struggles” as a white-passing creative, you’re always meant to hear his complaints with a critical ear. Raymond is able to thrive as a white man when he goes for a job interview or steps onto a set. Neither Archie nor Raymond’s girlfriend Camille ever have that luxury. Anna Mae Wong (played by Michelle Krusiec), a real-life Hollywood figure and Raymond’s favourite actress, will never have that luxury — unlike Raymond, she cannot hide her Asian heritage in plain sight.
These characters, along with the multitude of people of colour who faced the same battle in real-life early Hollywood, will always be treated as outsiders. Their only path to success is contorting themselves into whatever shape execs and directors decide is palatable that day. Tomorrow, when that shape inevitably changes, so will they. Archie, as a queer man, is juggling double the stress as he is forced to hide a personal life he isn’t the least bit ashamed of having.
Jeremy Pope handles the tension between Archie’s barely concealed hope and forced pragmatism expertly, crafting the breakout performance of the series. As we get to know Archie’s boyfriend Roy, we’re forced to take a long, disturbing look at the casting couch culture that was permissible prior to the #MeToo movement.
However, Hollywood isn’t simply about telling you how horrible its titular city was in the late ‘40s (although it is often depicted as upsettingly horrible). Instead, the drama aims to question if a brighter global history could have existed if the movie-making system changed during such a critical moment. It is inevitable that viewers will be split on their reactions to the results, and both camps will be at least a little bit correct. Some will find this luxurious take on Hollywood self-indulgent, with a habit of casting a blind eye at all the painful steps towards equality made by real-life activists over the past eight decades. Others will enjoy wandering into the fantasy of Hollywood as much as they would like to slip into a hot bath with a cold cocktail and a long book to beat back the mounting terrors of the day.
For that latter group, there will always be Dreamland.