I will admit it up front. I have a bit of a grudge against “The Last Tycoon.”
Amazon Prime’s new series, which premiered its first season last Friday, was one of two pilots that Amazon premiered last summer. The other show was “The Interestings,” an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel about the intertwining lives of friends who met at arts camp.
I loved “The Interestings” and thought “Tycoon” was just okay, with a lot of unrealized potential. Viewers got to rate both shows, and while this was never expressly stated by Amazon, it seemed like only one of the two would be turned into a series. Despite my preference, “Interestings” was canned and “Tycoon” was turned into a series.
It’s still just okay.
The adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last (and unfinished) novel is certainly one of the most beautiful shows on streaming, a loving evocation of 1930s Hollywood. Every surface seems to glow, every period detail is just right, and star Matt Bomer is so movie-star handsome it’s actually kind of distracting. But the show, created by Billy Ray, is torn between being a loving ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age and a scathing expose about how not-so-Golden it really was.
Bomer plays Monroe Stahr, a wonder-boy executive at the fictional Baker American Pictures movie studio in 1936. Headed by gruff mogul Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), Baker American struggles for box office hits behind more profitable (and real) movie studios like MGM and Columbia Pictures.
Stahr believes the magic of the movies is essential to America, especially in such a troubled time, with the country deep in the grips of the Depression and with the German threat brewing overseas. But he’s under pressure to produce hits so the studio doesn’t go bankrupt, and part of that pressure includes not offending German audiences.
“They just want to make sure we’re not producing anything that’s offensive to the German people,” he’s told. “The German people have produced a few things that are offensive to me,” responds Stahr, who is Jewish.
There’s more tumult brewing closer to home, with homeless Dust Bowl refugees building a “Hooverville” on the studio lot, and film crew members threatening to form a union. Personally, Stahr is grieving the death of his movie-star wife and starting to date again, as well as having an affair with his boss’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).
It’s a lot of elements — personal, political, creative — for a show to juggle, and “The Last Tycoon” spends so much time juggling them that it feels a little empty. Part of the problem is that Bomer’s performance doesn’t suggest the emotional or artistic depths of Monroe. In a role that calls for a Don Draper, he is too often like a less-pouty Pete Campbell.
Like Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” “Last Tycoon” is so well made that you hope the show will eventually figure out what it wants to be, besides pretty.
Also on streaming: Netflix had a hit last summer with its prequel to the 2000 cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer,” with Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Amy Poehler and more reprising their roles as horny camp counselors. On Friday comes “Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later,” which revisits the same group of campers a decade later.
Fans of 18th-century British literature — hey, who isn’t? — will want to tune into Acorn.tv to catch “Fanny Hill,” an adaptation of the bawdy classic novel. Screenwriter Andrew Davies (“Bridget Jones’ Diary”) wrote this witty, racy version, with Rebecca Night playing Fanny, who goes from innocent waif to cosmopolitan woman. It premiered on Monday.
BritBox goes darker with “In the Dark,” a four-part miniseries following a detective (MyAnna Buring) who juggles impending motherhood with two troubling murder cases. It premieres Tuesday.