“I guess I finally realized this place isn’t like the movies at all. It’s just where they’re made.”
This is Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott), would-be actress turned waitress, to Monroe Stahr (Matthew Bomer), the film studio executive hero of Amazon’s new period drama The Last Tycoon. Kathleen’s not the first character in the series to express a sentiment like this, nor the last. The show can at times barely go five minutes without someone comparing a current moment in their lives to how it would play on screen, usually finding the real version wanting.
“That’s why we do rewrites,” Monroe jokes at one point.
This is a familiar device in stories about people who work in Hollywood, and one that creates the expectation of a story illustrating exactly how normal life is different from what’s on the screen. But of course these stories are themselves usually told on screen as well, and it can be difficult for them to distinguish between levels of fiction. It’s a trap The Last Tycoon unfortunately falls into too often, though more in the way it leans on the cable drama playbook than in evoking the movies Monroe Stahr and friends were making back in 1936.
The series, which debuts Friday, was adapted by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) from the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, which has been published in a few forms (usually completed based on his notes) since his death — is a handsome but ultimately hollow nostalgia exercise. Ray has assembled a top-notch team (including Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, and Pulitzer-winning historian and Fitzgerald fan A. Scott Berg) to recreate the period, and the strong cast also features Kelsey Grammer as Monroe’s boss Pat Brady, Lily Collins as Pat’s movie-crazy daughter Celia, Rosemarie DeWitt as Pat’s wife Rose, and Mark O’Brien (Cameron’s useless Halt and Catch Fire husband) as Max Miner, who talks his way out of a Hooverville tent city into a job on the lot. The suits, hats, gowns, and sets all look smashing, and the actors are strong, particularly Bomer ratcheting up his boyish charm to its most potent in order to convey how justly beloved Monroe is in an otherwise-cutthroat town. But the characters all feel like stock types borrowed from other series, even if many of them were created by Fitzgerald back in his final days, and the whole thing feels a bit dull. I have all the love in the world for tales of pre-WWII Hollywood, but ran out of patience with this one by the end of the fourth episode.
The series mostly focuses on the fictional Brady-American studio run by Pat and Monroe, but they frequently cross paths with real life figures of the era, like director Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg), sex symbol Marlene Dietrich (Stefanie von Pfetten), MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Saul Rubinek), and Mayer’s own wunderkind head of production Irving Thalberg (Seth Fisher). Fitzgerald loosely based Monroe on Thalberg, and at times the show suffers from the same problem that could plague Boardwalk Empire: the historical characters tend to feel livelier, even in brief appearances, than their fictional counterparts.
Ray and company do cleverly use ’30s Hollywood to illustrate the many ways the world hasn’t changed. A government representative from Nazi Germany — pre-war, a huge foreign market for every movie studio — keeps demanding creative changes to better reflect the Third Reich’s values, in the same way that studios now go out of their way to avoid any content that would get their movies banned from playing in China. And there’s commentary about how entertainment takes on even greater weight in times of economic or political crisis; when Pat tries to shut down one of Monroe’s projects because the Depression is hurting the studio’s bottom line, Monroe argues, “Pictures like this matter when you have nothing else!”
But the focus is often more on romantic entanglements — Monroe falls for Kathleen because she reminds him of his late movie star wife, while Celia pines openly for him — or the less glamorous business of keeping the studio afloat. Jennifer Beals pops up for a few episodes (looking, as she did back in Devil in a Blue Dress, born for the period) as a mega-star looking to exact a hefty price for jumping ship to Brady-American, while Celia gets mixed up in union organization, much to her father’s dismay.
It’s easy to see why Ray was drawn to the material, and why he’s been trying to turn it into a series for years. (The show was in development with HBO for a while before moving over to Amazon, which has had the pilot online for more than a year.) It’s based on work by one of our country’s greatest authors, and it’s about the magic of the movies, which is an irresistible subject to so many people responsible for that magic. But the show he’s made from that material is another slow burn not working hard enough to justify its existence or your future viewing, under the assumption that once you start any streaming show, you’ll just keep going.
The Last Tycoon takes place less than a decade after the debut of the first talking picture. The idea of 10-hour stories that people can watch at home whenever they want would be unbelievably foreign to a man like Monroe Stahr. But I wonder if decades from now, when someone creates a drama about showbiz in the late 2010s, it will be filled with characters observing how their lives are and aren’t like a Netflix drama: “Yes, you go on from this moment to the next one and the next one, man, but it doesn’t stop! There are no season finales! No crossovers with the other Defenders!”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com