“Hollywood, Cali­fornia. Tinsel town is boomtown,” the voice of a narrator roars in the opening frames of Hollywood, a Netflix miniseries on make-believe Hollywood that started streaming last weekend.

Announcing the status of the industry, and cueing us on the backdrop of the story, the narrator of a newsreel condescendingly tells us that the movie business, just recovering from the Second World War, is on the rise. Los Angeles, which used to be the hub of the wartime industry, is now playing host to many starry-eyed dreamers hoping to make it in the movies, he snidely blares, calling struggling actors swarms of locusts who gather outside studio gates.

The extras, wishing to be Paul Muni or Hedy Lemarr, would have to abide by the all-powerful studio system and, if the strugglers play their cards right, they could be living in Beverly Hills, splashing in private pools, attending all the right parties, or becoming immortalised by having their name on the sidewalk of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (a Hollywood landmark).

“The rewards for ambition are bountiful here,” the voice in the news proclaims.

The Netflix series Hollywood is beautiful to look at and well cast, but its attempts to present a peachy picture of all sorts of exploitation make it seem incredulous

The message is loud and clear to the sole attendee of the movie theatre playing the newsreel, Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a young small-town wannabee who served in the war, came back home, got his girlfriend pregnant and moved to California to make it in movies.

Jack, whose talent in the first two of the seven episodes is limited to good looks, is one of the hundreds who swarm the gates of Ace Studios (a stand-in for Paramount). With his wife (Maude Apataow) waiting tables, and him with no chance of a breakthrough, Jack is soon wooed by a creepy man in a bar one night.

Ernie West (Dylan McDermott) runs a local gas station where its attendants — all hunky men — pump more than gas. Customers, mostly rich women, some struggling men, drive up the tarmac, tell the gas attendant a password — dreamland — and whisk them away.

The money is better than Jack hoped — in most cases, it is better than what new actors contracted at the studios get — but business being business, he has to swing both ways. Jack, ambitious — and mostly just lucky — soon hits it big time by being a regular escort-cum-boytoy of a silent era actress (Patti LuPone).

Hollywood, with its no-compromise policy on sex and nudity, is a rags-to-riches story of moral compromises. Perseverance, and sleeping with the right people, gets you into the big leagues; talent is secondary, and perhaps not that essential if you look the part.

Jack, however would not cater to men, and recruits Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) for Ernest to pick up the slack. Coleman is a homosexual African American screenwriter who recently sold his first screenplay on an ill-fated struggling actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign.

The screenplay, Peg (based on the real-life story of Peg Entwistle), becomes a point of reference for the rest of the supporting cast. A young, and a bit dimwitted Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) finds a slimy, verbally and physically abusive agent (Jim Parsons); Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), a talented up-and-coming writer-director, living with a struggling African American actress, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier, a homage to Dorothy Dandridge), is hired to helm Peg; the clueless studio head (Rob Reigner) cheats on his wife with a talented actress (Mira Sorvino) who hasn’t had much luck in movies.

Real-life people — George Cukor, Vivian Lee, Talulah Bankhead, Noel Coward, Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel — intermingle with the make-believe. Hollywood, despite every character’s excessive sexual flings, was a great story… until it passed episode four. It’s that moment when the story veers off its tangent, forcing me to look up its poster that boldly states: What if you could rewrite the story.

As in rewriting Hollywood’s story.

Alternative histories seem to be the trending genre these days. Where Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood imagined a ‘What If’ scenario of erasing Sharon Tate’s murder, Hollywood concocts a hardly believable fantasy of reimagining 1947 as if it were the late 2010s.

Screenwriters and co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan (Glee, The Politician) have a confused sense of reverence for old Hollywood, where indecency intermingles with integrity, but nothing is grave or consequential. Crisis — even narrative cliffhangers leading one episode to the next — sort themselves out without a hitch; careers are never doomed, or even temporarily halted by studio politics. The industry, with its coalesced mindset, appears unyielding, but the people living in Hollywood aren’t, we’re led to believe. In fact, no one, with exception to a few lawyers late in the series, are evil. Everything is sudsy and unfussy, and everyone gets a chance at redemption (well, other than the lawyers). Hurrah! ... for imaginativeness.

The closer the series moves towards its climax, the more incredulous it gets.

Set squarely between 1945-46, this screwed-up history lesson, I feel, robs real people of their achievements, no matter how late those achievements were made in the history of the industry. For example, one episode shows Ace Studios being taken over by its owner’s wife — a strong-willed woman who fights to make one film that would dramatically change how things were perceived in Hollywood.

This decision in the story would predate and overwrite achievements of real executives such as Sherry Lansing, who became the CEO of Paramount and successfully headed 20th Century Fox, decades later in the 1980s.

As the story enters its final phases, historic Oscar-winners — Loretta Young (Best Actress winner for The Farmer’s Daughter) and Elia Kazan (director winner for A Gentleman’s Agreement) are robbed of their honours to serve a narratively better purpose: to erase gender, racial and sexual perverseness and inequality in one fell swoop.

It is unconvincing, no matter how dreamy it sounds.

Now that I think about it, dreamland, the password Ernie’s clients used, is a perfect metaphor for the series.

The series’ title sequence, with the cast scaling the Hollywood sign atop Los Angeles, is another picture-perfect representation of the story and the characters’ individual struggles. However, in the episodes these moments often involve melodramatic tantrums, where people cry their eyes out or leave the room. (Queen Latifah, playing Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win an Oscar for Gone with the Wind, has a forcefully tacked-on scene where she cries after winning the award; just a moment ago, she says, she wasn’t allowed into the Oscar ceremony because of her skin colour).

That’s not to say that Hollywood has bad acting. Far from it, the casting is perfect, and the performances universally superb. Cornswet, McDermott, Holland Taylor (playing a studio executive), Samara Weaving (playing an up-and-coming actress with a very interesting personality), Joe Mantello (as the real brains of Ace Studios), Michelle Krusiec (as Anna May Wong) and Patti LuPone deserve standing ovations at times (LuPone and Taylor may very well be up for awards this year, who knows).

Cinematographically, I would have cut back on the overly diffused look from lens filters (they seem to be all the rage these days). As for the production design, the limited number of sets the cast keep returning to gives one a sense of constraints in budget. These are minor peeps in a visually attractive production that looks and feels like a very fluid movie. In fact, the series is so fluid at times that the seven-hour binge-watching stretch didn’t feel like a chore.

If only the ‘What If’ factor and the self-delusional, self-congratulatory everything-is-okay-to-get-it-made-in-Hollywood feel would have been taken care of, Hollywood would literally be a very different and much more appealing experience.

Hollywood is rated 18+; parents strongly cautioned, the series has a lot of nudity and sex

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 17th, 2020