The writers, directors, actors, and executives at Brady American, the fictional film studio at the center of The Last Tycoon, need a hero. It’s 1936, and as a new German menace emerges abroad, the depression at home threatens the fiscal viability of the company. Producer Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), a perpetually composed mystery man with model looks, might just be that hero. He acts as the studio’s fixer, manipulating petulant actors, struggling writers, and tight-fisted board members with a deft touch that leaves his subjects feeling grateful. According to Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), his boss and mentor, Monroe is “a velvet fucking jackhammer.” But there’s more to Monroe than his unruffled demeanor and diplomatic talent: Born Milton Sternberg, a son of poor immigrants, he was “invented” by Pat, who recognized his potential, and helped him craft and cultivate a new identity.
Monroe is one of many bogus identities in The Last Tycoon. The show’s exploration of selfhood is founded on the assumption that people have exactly two distinct sides, separately accessible but never cohering into one complex individual; everyone here harbors a secret self. Pat transformed himself from street urchin to CEO by burying his sympathy and vulnerability, adopting a gruff exterior that Grammer, with his gravelly voice and thick, imposing stature, fully embodies. Kathleen (Dominique McElligott), Monroe’s love interest, is an Irish waitress with a nefarious past that the series reveals late in the season. Pat’s wife, Rose (Rosemary DeWitt), plays the part of society housewife but longs for fulfillment as something other than Pat’s trophy—and maintains an affair with Monroe early in the season.
Even The Last Tycoon’s most peripheral characters live dual lives. The series seldom strays from its focus on illusion as a survival technique of the “movie men” at Brady American. When Celia Brady (Lily Collins), Pat’s daughter, refers to Monroe as “the only person in this whole phony town who actually behaves like the characters in our pictures,” she compliments his calculated disposition while unintentionally commenting on the essence of Monroe and his Hollywood cohorts: They’re all just acting.
Any depth suggested by the secret selves of Monroe and his associates is flattened by the show’s staunch aversion to interiority. Motivations and feelings are rarely illustrated through action; Monroe, Pat, and others proclaim their intentions and reveal their backstories to one another in overwrought monologues that bear little resemblance to reality. These characters never appear conflicted by their disparate internal machinations. Rather, they access each of their distinct identities according to circumstance, and clumsily illustrate which “self” they’re occupying at the moment with declarative speeches and personal anecdotes.
Despite a thematic fixation on the pliable nature of identity, two-dimensionality defines the series, which resembles a diorama, complete with lifeless figurines, at every turn. This is a period series with very little sense of time or place, even with its era-specific wardrobe, makeup, and offhand historical references. Scenes unfold almost exclusively indoors, in settings that aren’t fully established. Pat is only ever seen in his parlor, as if his mansion only has one room in it. Monroe describes his waterfront home as a work in progress, but how much is complete remains a mystery, as he and Kathleen are only ever seen in one of the mansion’s rooms.
Rare outdoor scenes unfold inside the gates of Brady American on pre-fab backlots that lend the series a sense of artificiality. We’re never offered a glimpse of the Los Angeles of 1936 or an understanding of the world outside Monroe’s privileged universe. And the studio setting, intended to immerse us in the Hollywood of that period, is a superficially rendered backdrop that fails to ground the series in the reality of any period.
Celia, comparing the behavior of Monroe and movie characters, is wrong in the scope of her assessment of the man. Everyone in his world acts as if they know the camera is on, emoting in a manner typically reserved for soap operas. They treat each plot development as if it were a revelatory climax, with dramatic reactions that appear frivolous when seemingly crucial plot arcs fade to the background without impacting the story. A trucking union figures heavily in one episode, never to be referenced again, just as Monroe’s affair with Rose quickly fizzles out, without consequence, in the season’s first few episodes. One episode features a full studio walkout over a payroll dispute—a scenario that’s way too swiftly resolved.
The Last Tycoon’s quickly forgotten, ultimately immaterial narrative arcs are a part of the show’s attempt to build an engrossing Hollywood myth, filled with dishonesty and moral compromise, where a person can be whoever they want as long as their choice gets results. But with its artificial look and shallow characters, the series is too transparent in the construction of its own illusion to be fully immersive. Even after Kathleen’s treachery upends Monroe’s reality late in the season, one can’t help but wonder if The Last Tycoon, so fixated on façade, is hiding anything beneath its surface at all.