Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Films and TV shows whose appeal derives from their insider depiction of how films and TV shows are made have been an entertainment industry staple going back at least as far as King Vidor’s Show People in 1928, and in the decades since they’ve comprised their own virtual subgenre. Movies and television series as disparate as Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, Soapdish, Knight of Cups, S.O.B. and Entourage – along with hundreds if not thousands of others – are all linked by their self-reflexive (and, in the best cases, self-reflective) “Hollywood on Hollywood” approach to storytelling. The immensely entertaining new Freeform series Famous in Love contains echoes of all these works and explicitly comments on many of them, particularly in the case of Entourage (more on that later). But it’s far more than the sum of its influences; as the first truly ambitious Hollywood-on-Hollywood-style series to emerge at the peak of the social media age, it takes the traditions from which it draws in surprisingly fresh directions, using its milieu to comment not only on show business but on women and power in American society at large.
The show’s premise, freely adapted from the novel of the same name by Rebecca Serle (who also serves as an executive producer and writer on the series), is that unassuming college student Paige Townsen (Bella Thorne) becomes instantly famous when she attends an open casting call and is plucked from obscurity to star in a huge studio movie based on a bestselling teen fantasy novel. Sparks fly between her and co-star Rainer Devon (Carter Jenkins) both onscreen and off, and Paige is forced to navigate the complexities of both her love life and her profession with millions of eyes watching and commenting by way of social media and the entertainment press. This core storyline, which imaginatively riffs on real-life showbiz romances (most obviously, the one between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson), is compelling enough on its own to sustain a series, but Serle and series creator I. Marlene King (of the equally addicting Pretty Little Liars) are up to a lot more. Rainer’s mom Nina (Perrey Reeves) is the studio executive in charge of his movie; she’s also secretly sleeping with his estranged friend Jordan (Keith Powers), who had a one-night stand with Rainer’s now ex-girlfriend Tangey (Pepi Sonuga), a pop star looking to reinvent herself against the wishes of her controlling mother – who is also her manager.
Meanwhile, Paige has two roommates: Jake (Charlie DePew), a friend with whom there is an obvious but unfulfilled mutual attraction, and Cassandra (Georgie Flores), another friend whose economic woes lead her down an exploitative career path – though not one any audience member would see coming. There’s also a ruthlessly ambitious starlet (Niki Koss) angling to use Jake for her own ends, a studio head who has it out for Nina, and more secrets than you can count. Early on in the series, it becomes clear that, as with Pretty Little Liars, a great deal of the appeal here is going to come from watching beautiful people who have done bad things trying to hide their lies and misdeeds from each other and the audience. It’s all unabashedly, gloriously melodramatic, and completely riveting – again, largely due to the factor of social media. How do you keep a secret when the whole world is watching?
This question gives Famous in Love a lot of its narrative drive and soapy pleasure, but what makes the series great is that, like the classic 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, its stylish and escapist surface is a conduit for some incisive social commentary and satire. One clue to King’s intentions comes in the casting of Reeves – who previously played Ari’s wife on Entourage – as Nina Devon. Essentially, Famous in Love asks the question: what would the aggressively male Entourage look like told from the perspective of women? That was a series about male power, privilege and pleasure, and by shifting the focus to women in Hollywood, Famous in Love slyly becomes a critique not only of Entourage but of sexism and misogyny in the entertainment industry (and by extension, American corporate culture in general) as a whole. It’s also a meditation on power and what it means to have it, to lose it, to be held prisoner by it, and to be both seduced and terrified of it; every single one of the many subplots on Famous in Love approaches the topic from a different angle, weaving a tapestry of constantly shifting power dynamics among the characters that make Famous in Love a potent morality tale as much as anything else.
What makes Famous in Love special is the way it delivers its serious ideas in the most giddily escapist package imaginable – it has the substance of a weighty prestige drama but the unadulterated entertainment value of a great nighttime soap or genre film. The tricky tonal balance is even more impressive considering that amongst the social satire and melodramatic histrionics there are also interpersonal moments of great subtlety and delicacy; the cast is strong without exception, and uniformly adept at walking the line between heightened reality and authentic emotion that the premise requires. Bella Thorne in particular has found the perfect role for her considerable talents; although she’s only 19, she’s been kicking around for years in shows such as Big Love and Shake it Up and movies including The DUFF and Blended, and while she’s always been strong (even in material that didn’t deserve her), she’s never had a showcase like this before. Thorne was involved with the development of the show from the beginning, and clearly Serle’s novel spoke to her as a young star navigating her career, personal life and the media; the role of Paige places high demands on her, given the complexities of both the issues and the plotting, and she rises to the challenge brilliantly.
The show’s precision when it comes to its unique tone is undoubtedly helped not only by the consistently strong writing and acting, but by the number of top-notch directors at the helm of the first season’s episodes. Famous in Love directors thus far include Miguel Arteta, Michael Goi (whose masterpiece Megan is Missing was the subject of one of my previous Talkhouse pieces), and Pretty Little Liars stalwart Norman Buckley. The director of one of my favorite episodes, Mary Lou Belli, literally wrote the book on TV directing – her Directors Tell the Story, coauthored with Bethany Rooney, is one of the best tomes on the subject that I’ve ever read. Belli’s episode, “Prelude to Diss,” is a pivotal one in the series for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that it kicks off Paige and Rainer’s romance in a real sense after several episodes of casual flirting; the scene in which they finally act on their emotions is perfectly staged, timed and framed by Belli in a manner that recalls the Hollywood-focused movies of the past which Famous in Love constantly recalls. With its lush cinematic textures courtesy of ace cinematographer Larry Reibman (another Pretty Little Liars veteran), Famous in Love harks back to gorgeous Hollywood melodramas like The Bad and the Beautiful and Valley of the Dolls, only it provides more abundant pleasures thanks to the long-form TV structure. The first season is currently airing on Tuesday nights, but you can binge the whole thing in one gulp on a number of streaming platforms, including Hulu and Freeform’s own app. The show’s combination of brains, sex appeal and visual elegance makes it almost impossible to stop watching once you’ve begun.