Ask Matt: The Fiction of ‘Hollywood,’ Debating ‘Perry Mason,’ Fun with ‘House Hunters,’ Curses on ‘Yellowstone’ & More
Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic — also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist” — Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. (We know background music is too loud, but there’s always closed-captioning.)
One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on many Tuesdays and Fridays.
Was Hollywood a True Story?
Question: I recently watched the Netflix series Hollywood. They used some real actors’ names like Rock Hudson and Hattie McDaniel. I don’t believe that they did or said some of the things that happened in this show. How are they allowed to use real names? The events are so bizarre that I assumed that this is not a true story. Please enlighten me. — Linda
Matt Roush: I don’t doubt you’re confused. Hollywood is easily one of the weirdest hybrids in recent memory, and for me, a real disappointment and lost opportunity in dramatizing the prejudices against African-Americans, gays and women in that otherwise glamorous period of moviemaking. What Ryan Murphy‘s team concocted was a candy-colored fairy tale of fiction, taking some of the unpleasant realities of the time (such as Rock Hudson being an unhappily closeted actor of great charisma) and spinning a what-if progressive cushion for everyone to get the sort of happy ending denied to them at the time. I also wish Hollywood would have grown up and woken up sooner, but as I noted in my review at the time, Hollywood falls flat by pulling its punches with alt-reality artificiality. (The storyline that hewed closest to the truth was Dylan McDermott‘s robust gas-station pimp, based on a real-life character who operated a male sex service from his service station. I highly recommend the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.)
Because Hollywood never pretended to be a docudrama and billed itself as a myth about what might have been, the producers had wide creative license to play with these iconic figures and a number of other characters based on fact, including Jim Parsons as predatory agent Henry Willson, Michelle Krusiec as Anna May Wong, Paget Brewster as Talullah Bankhead, Daniel London as George Cukor, who actually hosted those now-infamous pool parties. Murphy got in legal trouble with still-living legend Olivia De Havilland over her portrayal in Feud: Bette and Joan because that series was based on a true story, but even her lawsuit wasn’t successful, because creative types have fairly wide latitude in putting words into public figures’ mouths.
When it comes to Hollywood, the truth is that Hudson was gay (but unlike here, closeted for much of his life) and Hattie McDaniel was barred from sitting with her co-stars at the Academy Awards when she won for Gone with the Wind. If Hollywood had stuck to the facts, even with its entirely fictional characters, it might have been a more powerful and memorable experience, and much less muddled.
Perry Mason Minus the Original Trappings
Question: I watched the first episode of HBO’s Perry Mason. While I’m fine with a different take on the character, I have to ask why, why, why didn’t they revive what is for my money one of the top 10 instrumental themes in TV history? — Ed, Watervliet, NY
Matt Roush: Seems to me like everything else involved with this revisionist origin story, it was a creative decision to provide distance from the original series. You hear that theme, and you’ll immediately conjure up an image of a Perry Mason who doesn’t exist yet in the world of this show. This Perry lacks agency and confidence and doesn’t yet deserve such a snazzy, jazzy, authoritative theme. I actually like the bold title card that jumps onto the screen in each episode, more indicative of a Warner Bros. film noir of the era than the slick legal drama of the ’50s.
Question: Sorry, sir, but I find HBO guilty of literary character assassination with its perverse version of Perry Mason, who bears no resemblance to the cool, resourceful trial lawyer created by Erle Stanley Gardner and turned into a TV icon by the great Raymond Burr. Shame on HBO for cynically hijacking this premium brand to trick fans like me into watching — a mistake I won’t repeat. — Sam F, Brooklyn
Matt Roush: As I predicted in my review, “Purists may balk at some of the character flaws among other additions to his backstory in this 1930s period piece. But purity is hardly the point.” We’re all entitled to our opinion, but I’ll take issue with accusing HBO of deceiving anyone with its intent. Whether you believe they’ve “hijacked” the character is another matter, and that depends on how devoted you are to the original. In none of the publicity, promos or reviews has anyone suggested that the Perry shown in this series boasts the qualities of the iconic character from book and TV, except maybe his passion for justice. Watching him find his way to the courtroom and learning the process is part of the fun of this series, but it obviously won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Especially if what you wanted was a faithful reboot of the original series‑and why would HBO be interested in something like that?
Falling Off our Couches
Question: When did House Hunters: Comedians on Couches begin? I’ve only recently seen the show, and it is hysterically funny. This is just what I’ve needed during this pandemic! Does HGTV plan to keep the show on the air through the summer? — Winnie
Matt Roush: The episodes first aired in June, and while I’ve also received some negative feedback from viewers less amused than you, most seem to get the joke. At the moment, no new episodes are in the works, but HGTV reports that Loren Ruch, Group SVP Programming and Development, responded, “Funny you should ask. It is definitely something we are exploring given the response from our audience.” Stay tuned.
Question: I really worry about some of your readers. What is wrong with the person who so hysterically objected to the HGTV temporarily, for four nights only, restructuring House Hunters to include comic commentary? It was hilarious, and I hope they do this over and over again. How can anyone view the original House Hunters with such veneration? I’ve always enjoyed it, but most of us viewers know that it’s largely a fraud.
Past exposés have pretty much shown that some of the houses shown were never really under consideration, but were inserted so they could comply with the format, and possibly viewed after the buyers had already decided to buy another house. Does anyone really think that everyone who looks for a new house will actually buy one, much less view only three? (I was amused at a recent show on which one of the “buyers” had inexplicably different facial hair every time we saw him.) And the prospective home buyers are clearly coached on what to say, from their comments about their own relationships to their comments about the houses they view, because the comments are almost always the same ones we hear on nearly every other episode. Have you ever seen an episode in which someone didn’t say they’d have to knock down a wall or revamp a perfectly good kitchen? My point is: House Hunters is always great fun, whether fake or real, but treating it as an untouchable sacred thing is ludicrous. — Unsigned
Matt Roush: It’s always worth repeating that this forum is meant to be a safe space, and even when I strongly disagree with someone’s opinion, I’ll try to let him or her express it without impugning their character. (I tend to draw the line at extreme political commentary — there are plenty of other places for that — and anything smacking of “why are there so many name-the-minority characters on TV” bigotry.) In this case, asking someone to lighten up felt appropriate. And in the bigger picture regarding House Hunters, I have no argument with your characterization of the show as a guilty pleasure whose “reality,” like so much else in this genre, should be accepted with a pillar rather than grain of salt.
Yellowstone Should Wash Its Mouth Out
Question: My sister and I have been watching Yellowstone since it started. We are both in our 70s and really enjoy the series with Kevin Costner. Our only concern is some of the language that seems so very unnecessary. The word f–k is used by almost everyone in the series and seems to be the only word any of them can remember when talking. This one word is repeated over and over in many forms throughout the entire program. We just think it would be much better if there was less “f—king.” The word is offensive and seems — to us at least — not to add anything to make the program great! To us, and many of our friends, that word could be left out and the program would still be AWESOME. — Brenda, South Carolina
Matt Roush: This complaint has dogged the show since its premiere but doesn’t seem to have affected its popularity. At times Yellowstone reminds me of Suits, in the way that its characters seemed to bend over backwards to find variations of the “s—-t” word in their dialogue. (It could make for a potentially lethal drinking game reacting to each cuss word on so many cable shows nowadays.) I agree that it can be excessive, while understanding that these are tough characters living in a rough and profane world and not ones to mince their language. There are times when it feels authentic, other times when it seems forced, and as with violence, it can be much more powerful when used with discretion.
Producing Live Events and Reality in a Pandemic
Question: What are America’s Got Talent‘s plans for the live shows? And speaking of live shows, Raw and NXT say they are live — are they? — Kathy
Matt Roush: America’s Got Talent hasn’t officially announced how it will proceed when it gets to that point, but Simon Cowell has already conceded in interviews that those rounds aren’t likely to be happening in a giant arena like the Dolby Theatre this year. Whether that means the contestants will be performing remotely in the method of American Idol and The Voice, or in smaller and socially distanced venues, remains to be seen. But Cowell insists the show will continue and reward a winner this season.
As for the wrestling shows, those might as well be happening on Mars for as much as I know about them, but there were reports and schedules published this spring indicating that new episodes would continue to be made in a mix of live and taped broadcasts, doubling up production on some days to minimize the risk for the athletes.
Question: Is Big Brother going to happen this summer? It seems the show is perfect for the pandemic, as all contestants are quarantined for the season (either in the BB house or the jury house). — Joe
Matt Roush: Last we heard, CBS was still intending to go forward with a new season of Big Brother, but as of yet, no timetable. And while I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect time for a show that I personally find reprehensible in premise and execution, I don’t see how a pandemic is an optimum occasion for a show where strangers are crammed inside a house together and where social distancing is antithetical to playing the game. (Even frequent testing might not be enough to halt the spread, and if there were an outbreak inside, imagine the fallout.) The Canadian version of the show was shut down midway through its season because of the pandemic, and while Big Brother has never been applauded for its social conscience, sitting this summer out might be seen as a public service.
That’s all for now. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. Please include a first name with your question. Everyone stay safe and healthy!