There are so many glossy alternative history television shows and movies in recent years that you’d be forgiven if you need to grab a textbook to remember fact from fiction.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino imagined a world where the Manson cult never got to Sharon Tate. HBO’s The Plot Against America imagines what it would be like if Charles Lindbergh had become president, and the proposed but now canceled Confederate, which would have depicted the Confederate states succeeding during the Civil War, had a competitor in Amazon’s Black America, a TV show idea in which freed slaves form their own nation. There is even a book exploring what Hillary Clinton’s life might have been like had she never married Bill.
And now there is the Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock-produced Hollywood, which is billed as an alternative history of Hollywood’s golden age. The seven-part Netflix series is less a rewrite of one moment in history and more a fantasy that completely reimagines the movie industry as a queer, liberal playground for artists and dreamers. But while Hollywood broadcasts a potent political message about the power of cinema, the series doesn’t quite earn it.
The show follows a group of largely fictional writers, actors, and directors at the imaginary Ace Studios, who all want to break the industry’s rules. There’s a black, gay screenwriter named Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), who teams up with director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) to create a movie about Peg Entwhistle, the real-life actress who committed suicide from atop the Hollywood sign in 1932. Rising black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) desperately wants to play Peg and escape the casting cycle of playing a housemaid, but white girl Claire Wood (Samara Weaving) also wants the part—and she just happens to be the daughter of the head of Ace Studios and his wife Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone).
Hollywood also seeks to excavate the secrets of this golden age beyond fictional stand-ins. Scenes between real movie star Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) and his agent Henry Willson, who was famous for molding all-American boys into beefy stars through fitness regimens and name changes, are some of the best in the show. With The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons playing the predatory Willson, Hollywood reminds viewers that even the “real” history of this industry was fake to begin with, as Willson pushes Hudson to remain in the closet for his career. The writers also have a field day imagining the private lives of real stars. A good portion of the show revolves around a campy gas station that’s actually a covert sex worker service for big movie stars and producers, no doubt inspired by the real-life service Scotty Bowers ran and detailed in his memoir. At one point we’re even encouraged to believe Hattie McDaniel and Tallulah Bankhead had a threesome with a male sex worker.
Nearly every step of the series diverges from what would have actually happened in the late 1940s. Actors of color are given roles they deserve, studio heads fight for diversity onscreen, and gay celebrities live openly. And while there are reminders of how racist the industry is to performers of color—such as appearances from the legendary Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) who was pigeonholed into “dragon lady” roles most of her career and Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah)—the hateful resistance the leads of Hollywood face is largely distant and abstracted. Gay stars are booed on the red carpet, faceless protesters stalk the studio, and flaming crosses appear on front lawns, but for the most part the show’s characters shrug it off or denounce these threats without fear. Every problem in the show seems to have a rosy solution and every character is perfectly confident and successful. The show wants to reimagine what the entertainment industry could have looked like in a formative moment but without fully engaging realistically with its ugliness.
Of course the show is a fantasy, but its historical wins feel empty without characters who feel like real, vulnerable people, whether they’re villains or heroes. And what accounts for this sudden political film revolution, which most of the industry seems to get on board for and seems to come from nowhere? There’s the strength of Archie Coleman’s movie, for one thing, which is a genuinely great idea even by 2020 standards. (Seriously, where is our Peg Entwhistle movie?) But there’s also the ethos of Hollywood’s characters and the show itself, which is the idea that movies and television can actually create political change. And I mean literally, the show believes that movies can change people’s politics. In one scene First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stops by Ace Studios and tells Avis Amberg, who must run the studio after he husband falls ill, to cast a black woman as a leading lady. “What you do,” she says. “Can change the world.”
But Hollywood never shows us how the world outside of Los Angeles changes, or what that change would be like, if the industry had made stories written and acted by anyone but straight, white men. The actors, writers, and directors of Hollywood’s story successfully overthrow a racist, sexist system with one great movie, but it would have been gratifying to see the aftermath of their success and its influence on the industry in the show. It’s an extremely rich statement about making history for a show that is literally remaking history. And its underlying message ultimately gives Hollywood a slimy aftertaste, as if to suggest its own existence is a revolutionary force.