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The Last Tycoon - Season 1 - Advance Preview

*All nine episodes of the first season watched for review

The Last Tycoon is not a series lacking in ambition. Adapted from F.Scott Fitzgerald's final novel, the series revolves around a second-tier movie studio in 1930s Hollywood, and in particular around Monroe Stahr, the studio's enigmatic, mysterious executive. With impressive production values and a terrific cast, including the likes of Matt Bomer, Kelsey Grammer, and Lily Collins, The Last Tycoon is one of Amazon's biggest attempt at a "prestige" drama yet, and it really is an admirable effort.

Dripping with gorgeous period details, the series wonderfully captures a long-gone, more glamorous era of the movie industry. Created by Shattered Glass director Billy Ray, The Last Tycoon is visually immaculate, the series' various directors (including Ray himself) allowing the camera to soak up every detail without getting lost in it.

The series is clearly enraptured by the time period it is depicting, and in its execution often tries to mimic a distinctly old-fashioned style of filmmaking. But that earnestness is at odds with some of the series' other ambitions, one of which being the difference between real life and how life is depicted in the movies the characters are making. The show's exploration of such a theme would be more impressive if its often clunky dialogue didn't constantly call attention to it.

Like in much of Fitzgerald's work, the characters in The Last Tycoon live very comfortable lives, yet are often harbouring at least one dark secret. At the centre of the show is Bomer's Monroe Stahr, an executive who is quickly developing a reputation as one of the best in the business. The show opens with him mourning the death of his wife Minna Davis, a huge star. Faced with a deadly heart condition, Monroe is determined to make one last great picture before he dies, which could be at any moment. While not the world's most complex character - Monroe often comes across as a little too perfect - Bomer's effortless charm and charisma makes you forget about any issues you may have with the protagonist otherwise.

The same applies to a few other characters on the show, in particular Celia Brady (Collins), daughter of Monroe's boss Pat Brady (Grammer). Celia wants to break into the movie business and become a producer, much to her father's chagrin. Throughout the season Celia remains a hard character to pin down, at times doe-eyed and naive, other times oozing confidence and wisdom beyond her years. But the problems with the character are mostly overcome by the performance of Collins, who is always immensely watchable.

The show's juicier roles come for Grammer, Dominique McElligott (who plays Kathleen Moore, a woman who Monroe becomes romantically entangled with), and Rosemarie DeWitt (who plays Pat's increasingly unsatisfied wife). Here, Grammer gets to play a role with far greater subtlety than he's used to, seething with a contained rage and jealously as Pat watches Monroe (deservedly) get the credit for the studio's various successes.

McElligott's role at first doesn't seem to be too involving, but over the course of the season Kathleen is gradually given greater depth and complexity than you would expect, as the character eventually becomes the encapsulation of the series' broader ideas. And DeWitt is quietly heartbreaking as Rose Brady, who has become frustrated by a marriage to a man who no longer seems to truly see her, if he ever really did in the first place.

The show also boasts some excellent supporting performances, some of actual historical figures. Stand-outs include Saul Rubinek as Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM, and Iddo Goldberg as Fritz Lang. Goldberg's performance in particular is wonderfully hammy, the actor adopting a thick German accent (the accuracy of which I can't speak to). Jennifer Beals also appears in several episodes as a fictional aging movie star with a career-threatening secret, and steals every scene she's in.

At times The Last Tycoon is a little too enamoured with itself, believing it is in possession of a profound thematic depth that it simply doesn't have. But it's more often than not a charming series bolstered by a beautiful aesthetic and a terrific cast, and unlike so many other drama series it doesn't get too bogged down in brooding melodrama, knowing when to inject moments of optimism or levity. While far from perfect, The Last Tycoon is worth checking out, and not just for fans of the era it's depicting or period dramas in general.

Grade: B