The era of prestige television dramas has ushered in a mentality that a high-stakes period piece, in order to be an artistic success, must have a raw intensity to justify a full series’ existence. Ostensibly, “The Last Tycoon” offers the perfect opportunity for just that, a cutthroat look at life in Old Hollywood as a nation reels from the effects of the Great Depression and hurtles toward World War II.
Instead, the latest interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished 1941 novel is more akin to the high melodrama that characterized many of the most popular dramas of that era. The result is a glossy look at the time period that, despite leaning on some familiar emotional and story territory, still makes for an engaging, enjoyable viewing experience.
At the heart of “The Last Tycoon” is Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), a dapper and charming Hollywood jack-of-all-trades of the fictional Brady-American studio, at the height of the period when such entities had a firm stranglehold on the motion picture business. With his hands in everything from performer contracts to script rewrites to production design feedback, Stahr takes a vested interest in the films under his charge, but delivers his suggestions — and in specific cases, orders — with a grace and gentility that his boss Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) decidedly does not have. Pat is also a serial adulterer, much to the chagrin of his wife Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt). As Monroe, a widower, tries to move past the grief of losing his superstar actress wife, he relies on a simpler approach than the bombast of his station to fill the hole in his heart.
Bomer embodies every aspect of Monroe’s whiz-kid charm, making the admiration that he gets from from the set designers to secretaries all the more believable. As Monroe goes about his daily duties as a shepherd of new Brady-American projects, Bomer shows an overriding feeling of wonder, even if the audience knows his optimism is sometimes invented, or the smile is hiding a darker emotion.
Meanwhile, Grammer builds on the villainy chops he honed over two seasons on “Boss,” here playing a studio head who relishes casual racism as much as the opportunity to flirt with his female employees. Pat often switches between genial and sinister on a dime and Grammer keeps those snaps from being too jarring.
The show also finds some subtle layers to the women in these men’s lives. Celia (Lily Collins) is a refreshing twist on the boss’ daughter trope, not merely an object of desire or point of contention but an ambitious, intuitive young visionary with a knack for spotting talent. Rosemarie DeWitt brings an added sense of resilience to Rose, not content to exist simply as a magnate’s wife. Even Kathleen (Dominique McElligott), the waitress who entrances Monroe, quickly shows that she has more to offer than just being a stylish love interest with a sweet Irish accent.
Even with the strength of the performances from the series regulars, the shows biggest stand out is Jennifer Beals as fictional Hollywood starlet Margo Taft. A prized studio actress with decades of experience in the business, Margo shows her strengths as a negotiator and manipulator. But Beals plays the other side of her character’s vulnerability with a firm grasp of the emotional weight that someone in the public eye constantly deals with.
The Hollywood universe that these characters float through is recreated with a careful eye to detail, in a way that a trade paper of the day would surely describe as “handsome.” Impeccable suits, elegant mansion foyer soirées, and dutifully rebuilt soundstages all immerse the audience in this world, setting the groundwork for a story that requires the viewer to have as much reverence for this world as its main characters do.
When putting the show in historical context, “The Last Tycoon” relies on this immersion and on real-life Hollywood figures (Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Louis B. Mayer all figure into the story in significant ways) as a shortcut to events happening beyond the studio walls. There’s an early emphasis on the relationship between the Hollywood system and the rise of fascism in Europe, connecting the threats of censorship with the German emissaries dictating American movie content. Stories of immigration and the effort to assist Depression-affected families in the surrounding Hollywood area also provide grace notes to counteract the continuous emphasis on the movie business. The history happening elsewhere eventually gets short shrift, though, when forced to take a backseat to the romantic pursuits of the characters at the show’s center.
Steamy affairs, mistaken identities and shocking character deaths all seem like the roots of breezy sensationalist fiction of the period, rather than coming from one of the most vaunted American novelists of all time. But there’s something about the way that executive producer Billy Ray and the rest of the show’s writing staff construct these various character arcs that keep the momentum going along even when the actions and character choices that connect those plot details seem overwrought.
In that way, the show is designed to be entertainment as unabashed as the matinee options that lined the marquees in the days of “My Man Godfrey” and “The Wizard of Oz” (both of which are also referenced in the series). It’s not quite Hollywood history, not quite a gritty character study, but instead specifically designed to appeal to the fundamental building blocks of intrigue that have worked for a century of on-screen stories.
As a upstairs-downstairs approach to life within a pre-World War II Studio environment, it’s more “Downton Abbey” than “Mad Men.” One thing that “The Last Tycoon” shares with the Julian Fellowes drama is its tendency to give its characters moments of pure, unadulterated bliss and immediately follow it with heart-rending tragedy. Early episodes, even with the looming specter of anti-Semitism and lingering infidelity that could ruin a career, still have a brisk breezy feel. When Monroe’s life takes less pleasant turns as the season progresses, these twists aren’t delivered with much subtlety, but the plot machinations that got the story to that point have already taught audiences what to expect.
The season’s final shot is a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show entertaining and occasionally a bit frustrating. It’s a little corny, a little heavy-handed, but very distinctly in line with a brand of drama that TV now tends to shy away from. Maybe it’s an approach that would only work with a self-reflexive Hollywood story, but it shows that there’s still room for a little more.
“The Last Tycoon” is now available on Amazon Prime.