When Netflix schedules its releases for a given week, it’s never entirely clear how much thought they put into how their new releases will play against one another. But I often find it interesting how contrasting the big-ticket prestige series against the smaller ones released alongside them tend to highlight themes and ideas that might otherwise pass beneath the sheen of TV glamour. Such thoughts crossed my mind when I found myself comparing and contrasting the superficially very different Hollywood and Summertime after both premiered last week. Fair warning: My review contains some mild spoilers.
Hollywood is the better known of the two and the latest release from Glee creator Ryan Murphy and his longtime collaborator Ian Brennan, whose The Politician I reviewed last year. Murphy has a distinct style, combining great hooks, amazing actors, and oversaturated aesthetics with cliché writing and sloppy plotting that often threaten to cause the whole thing to come tumbling down. Murphy’s great theme across all of his shows, as I wrote in my last review, is “what it meant to be gay in the late twentieth century and the challenges of dealing with a world that demanded you not be if you wanted to be fully a part of it.” That was true for The Politician and it is true for Hollywood, too. The setting might be a fantasy version of Los Angeles in 1947, but the story is really one of the longing and fear and the hope of being gay in the 1980s and 1990s, when mainstream society took the first steps toward recognizing gay men as acceptable members of society.
In Hollywood, Murphy cloaks this under the guise of telling an imaginary story of what might have happened if oppressed minorities accidentally found themselves in power in Hollywood, when the liberation of the later twentieth century arrives decades early. But like so many of Murphy’s stories, this one has a dark, unsettling core that the show treats like a sand grain in an oyster, trying to smooth it into a pearl. Here, that unpleasant center is sexual exploitation and abuse, which Murphy tries his damnedest to reframe as fun and empowering. It isn’t. And no amount of jaunty music of sun-dappled glamour shots can fully mask that.
The show takes its inspiration from the real-life misadventures of Scotty Bowers, a handsome young marine who ran a (mostly) gay gigolo service out of a gas station staffed by his fellow ex-marines. (If you’re interested in what is true and what isn’t in the show, Slate broke it down.) Here, however, Murphy makes this already somewhat skeevy situation even creepier by turning the enterprising young marine into lecherous old Ernie (a gray Dylan McDermott), who recruits an unsuspecting young veteran named Jack (David Corenswet, playing broader here than in The Politician) to work at his bordello/gas station and gradually enmeshes him in a world of high-powered prostitution, at one point demanding Jack either start servicing male clients or recruit another young man who will. Jack takes the latter path in a scene played humorously but taken literally is so utterly run through with complicated feelings about power, privilege, and masculinity that I’m not sure I could unpack it in a sentence. It involves the very white Jack dressing up as a police officer in order to involuntarily recruit a black gigolo named Archie (Jeremy Pope) at gunpoint while he’s giving a hand-job in a gay porn theater.
Jack wants to be an actor, and Archie wants to be a scriptwriter. They find themselves at a glamorous gay orgy hosted by director George Cukor, which we are meant to read as a liberating escape from social reality by rich and famous closeted Hollywood men. But the show never really explores the fact that these rich old men hired a phalanx of desperate young prostitutes to service them, nor that Cukor (in this show, anyway) also dangled money and power in front of the USC football team to get dozens of handsome college boys to sell themselves to old men. How else, Ernie asks, earnestly, are these powerful men supposed to find a moment of release in a world that won’t let them live openly? Well, for one thing, if you have a party full of gay men, they could try fucking each other before exploiting those with no money or power. The show never really comes to terms with the people being used, placing its loving gaze on the powerful.
Anyway, this inciting incident eventually leads, in a very complicated way, to Archie falling in love with a young Rock Hudson, writing a script about a real-life woman who kills herself because she can’t live her dream life, and finding his script turned into a major motion picture when Jack’s female client from the gas station coincidentally ends up inheriting a movie studio. There are some feints toward racial issues since Archie and the star of the movie are both black, but more weight falls on agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), a real-life abusive scumbag who sexually exploited the young men he recruited to be movie stars. Here he is seen demanding his clients let him give them blowjobs, and he forces Rock Hudson into a number of abusive acts. At the end of the show, Hudson tells Willson that he still has nightmares about the abuse. Murphy skips right over that beat because—oh, happy day!—the fictional Willson repented and says he’s sorry, so we are supposed to see him as a hero who found his own gay liberation after years of self-loathing.
At one point, nearly the entire male cast decide to try to save their movie by all becoming prostitutes to raise money to build a replica of the Hollywood sign for the film. (There is no way the wood and light bulbs for one letter H cost $25,000 in 1947 dollars, and this whole plot line needed a rewrite.) Murphy asks us to see their embrace of sex work as empowering, liberating, and heroic. But the jauntiness of the show and the candy colors and upbeat music can’t hide the deep well of sadness that even in a fantasy that wants to rewrite history to celebrate gays and minorities, the best we can expect is to define the gay experience as the commodification of sex and the facile equation of one’s human dignity with money.
By the preposterous ending to the series, all of the major characters have found their happy endings, even Ernie, who literally saves the day, and Murphy underscores the gay theme by having Jack—straight, cornbread Jack, the Jack who refused to fuck guys—take the role of Rock Hudson’s love interest in a new movie and, basically, agree to be gay for pay at last. It’s a twisted homage to the corny, tidy wrap-ups of midcentury B-pictures, presaged by the changes made to Archie’s script, which symbolically rewrite a tragic history into a happy, glossy Hollywood fable.
It sometimes works emotionally. Murphy makes you care about sweet, puppyish Rock Hudson, for example, in ways the original tried hard to erase. But the strained efforts to create an empowering fantasy only underscore how bad the real world was. We are meant to leave the show happy, but how depressing is it that this story of exploitation and abuse under the guise of liberation is actually the happy rewrite?
I couldn’t help but contrast this with the Italian series Summertime, which has none of the ambition of Hollywood but shares with it a deep bath in the aesthetics and language of midcentury cinema.
Summertime is a mood piece rather than a story, a somewhat formless meandering through the love lives of young Italians in a resort town on Emilia-Romagna’s Adriatic coast. Many reviewers disliked its laconic pace. Nothing much happens in the show, which has the air of a dream, but it is content to glisten in its sun-dappled beauty, capturing the feeling of being young and beautiful and in love in the warmth of a glorious summer. Summertime adapts an Italian-language young adult novel I have neither heard of nor read. The book, however, influences the series less than the long history of European film.
This is a series drenched in midcentury cinema, gorgeously shot to resemble the sort of Italian and French films of the 1960s that captured la dolce vita. Here, the candy-colored aesthetics and warm yellow lighting enhance the underlying themes rather than cut against them. There is a plot, barely. There is just enough story to move each episode along, but never enough to distract from the scenery. Like Hollywood, Summertime is a show that asks you to feel rather than to think, but its feelings are kinder and sweeter—a hazy memory of a long-ago summer that somehow is also happening today.
The story, such as it is, concerns Alessandro (Ludovico Tersigni), a former professional motorcycle racer who shut down emotionally after a racing accident but opens up again after meeting Summer (Coco Rebecca Edogamhe) at a beachside hotel. She resists his advances, he wins her over, and that’s about it. The show fills out its run time with love stories for Alessandro’s and Summer’s respective best friends, with a minimal amount of conflict arising between and among the various pairings. Not much happens, but everyone feels it very deeply. Framed as the story of a summer (yes, that pun again), it recalls the fleeting beauty of a memory of a future that never was, a holiday outside of time when everything seems possible, until the end finally comes.
But it’s not a show about story, and at that level, there isn’t much to see. To the extent it works, it only works as a feeling on film, of warm bodies and warmer sunshine. The final scenes expertly play on a thousand similar scenes from movies and television, and use our expectations to subvert them into something a little sad and a little beautiful and very Italian.
The show is not without its problems. I can’t fathom what Alessandro sees in Summer, though I freely admit that it is beyond my expertise. Her character, though, is a blank, possessed of few personality traits beyond prickliness and sighing. She read a book once, which I assume means that she is smart. Alessandro literally chases an unwilling Summer to the roof of a hotel to ask her out after she’s told him no. It’s meant to be cute and OK because he’s hot, and she eventually succumbs to his charms, but in real life you’d call the cops. The characters are also too young. The story would fit beautifully with young adults in their early twenties, but the show pretends most of them are seventeen. The apparently much older Alessandro (his age is never specified, but he has a beard and has been racing long enough to be one of the sport’s biggest stars) continues the pervy TV tradition of twentysomethings falling for high schoolers.
The obvious choice would be to compare Summertime to the other Netflix soap about Italian teens, Baby, but that show, despite being based on real events, had lower production values and as a result always felt false, like a strained copy of Élite. This time, I think that the tone tells the story, and the aesthetics of midcentury cinema carry a lot of the weight of the storytelling. In Summertime they support and enhance the narrative, filling in much of the emotion where the writing fails. In Hollywood, the effort to paste a technicolor veneer onto a story that deserved every moment of sadness, outrage, and pain the real events behind the fantasy might have held works against the message and robs the story of much of its power, turning even its pasteboard and balsawood triumph into an uncomfortable cartoon. Both shows idolize movies but they understand them and their power very differently.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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