Hollywood review: This big shiny mess shows Netflix has more money than time

In his latest series, Ryan Murphy turns his attention to the post-war ‘golden age’ of Tinseltown, where a glossy facade concealed racism, sexism and homophobia

Netflix trailer: Hollywood

There is an increasingly common type of streaming series: the big shiny mess (BSM). They come in different styles, but they are characterised by a deceptively glossy appearance, grand ambitions, and a script that runs out of ideas after the first hour. They are Ferraris that break down as soon as they leave the forecourt.

Without being privy to the inner workings of Netflix, Amazon et al, I’d say these are the kind of programmes you would naturally start to make if you had more money than time. The world needs content: pump it out! The list includes but is not limited to: Locke & Key, Hunters, The Politician, Altered Carbon. None lacked promise; none fulfilled it.

We can now add to the list Hollywood, the latest effort from television super producer Ryan Murphy, the hack-turned-mogul responsible for The Politician, as well as Glee, Feud, Pose, American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck, among others. His preferred style, at least recently, is to explore the treatment of abused or exploited minority groups, in big, clean colour-saturated sets.

In Hollywood, he has turned his attention to the post-war “golden age” of Tinseltown, where power was concentrated in the hands of a few studios, and a glossy facade concealed racism, sexism, homophobia and sundry other abuses of authority. The “limited series” of seven episodes, which feels like plenty, explores an alternate reality in which a band of plucky minorities, with the help of a few well-meaning elder statesmen, turns the orthodoxy on its head.

In the opening episode, wannabe actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet), who must be the most blemish-free man to have claimed to have fought at Anzio, is offered a job at a service station run by Ernie (Dylan McDermott), an ageing smoothie with a Terry-Thomas tache. Jack takes the job to support his pregnant wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd, which suggests that Los Angeles isn’t yet a pure meritocracy). There is a catch: the services run to more than oil and petrol. Clients, who include some of the industry’s most powerful men and women, can utter the password “dreamland”, whereupon the station’s handsome male attendants will join them for sex. Our clean-cut hopeful becomes a gigolo.

It is a funny twist and for a moment it looks as if Hollywood might offer subversive thrills, but aside from an acid turn by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons as the real-life agent Henry Willson, that’s as good as it gets. As the series opens out, introducing its other stars, it unravels. Jeremy Pope is Archie Coleman, who dreams of becoming the first black screenwriter. Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), who is half-Filipino but doesn’t look it, wants to be a director. Raymond’s girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) is an aspiring “actress under contract” at Ace Studios, in competition with Claire Wood (Samara Weaving, niece of Hugo).

You can see where it’s going. Dreams can come true, thanks to some sympathetic figures high up, not all of whom are connected to our heroes through the innuendo-laden pumping station. But Hollywood can never decide whether it wants to be an aspirational woke-alternate-reality fantasy or a nihilistic black comedy, and its conflicting tones sit uneasily together.

We haven’t heard the last of Murphy: in 2018, Netflix signed him up for a five-year contract worth a reported $300m. By my maths that makes him twice as well paid as Lionel Messi, and Messi looks like the acme of entertainment value in comparison. It’s ironic that it takes a programme about LA power brokers to disprove the old adage. Hollywood shows that time and money are not the same thing; sometimes you need both.

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