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Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli and Ewan McGregor as Halston in Halston.ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/NETFLIX/Netflix

Two years ago, the documentary Halston appeared. It’s rather good, if you come across it somewhere. Writer-director Frédéric Tcheng took an oddly framed look at the life and career of the fashion designer Halston by essentially asking the simple question, “What happened to Halston the man and the label?”

Now along comes Halston (streams Netflix), a five-part miniseries with Ewan McGregor playing the once-ubiquitous designer. Mostly co-written by Ryan Murphy’s usual writing partner Ian Brennan, with several others including Murphy, it goes further than being oddly framed; it is both underwritten and overwritten, with scenes that feel too long and some that seem too short. For a miniseries about the designer of fabulous clothes, it just doesn’t fit together.

It’s not easy to figure out what’s wrong with it, but there are a few things that can be stated. McGregor is good, mainly because he just throws himself into the role with abandon. There are several supporting players who stand out, but a few who appear to have been brought in from the nearest Madame Tussauds wax museum. The series is awful on some levels, yet there is merit in it, and the merit is found if you can accustom your understanding to what Ryan Murphy has been doing for years: probing the hidden history that is there beneath the commonly acknowledged narrative.

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At first, Halston feels like a familiar story. We meet the genius in childhood. In rural Iowa, little Roy Halston Frowick soothes his mother’s woes by making a lovely hat for her, one decorated with feathers from the farm. Very quickly the series places Roy Halston as a success who designed a pillbox hat for Jackie Kennedy and then, suddenly, he’s informed women have stopped wearing hats and he needs to do something new. Almost immediately he’s creating extraordinary dresses for Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) and his unerring eye has helped revolutionize American fashion. His clothes are chic and wearable and have an American feel to them that’s uncanny.

What happens next is where some viewers and critics throw up their hands. The Halston figure is simultaneously a workaholic and a wastrel lost in drugs and a vast array of male lovers. Sometimes he’s a narcissist and sometimes, especially in the company of women he trusts, he’s an appealing figure.

By episode four – called The Party’s Over – the excesses of Halston’s life are presented with such breezy ease that the picture is barely plausible. He’s consuming cocaine at a vast rate. There are mounds of the drug in containers at his office and he’s outraged to find an empty container. “We’ve gone through two weeks’ supply in a day,” his assistant explains. He wants more. Everybody is chain-smoking and going to Studio 54 where orgies are happening in the backrooms.

The key dilemma is about jeans. Yes, blue jeans. Halston refuses to issue a line of designer jeans under his name. He sneers and uses the word “dungarees.” But he made a deal with the devil when he allowed a corporation to invest in his work and essentially own him and his creations. There is a curious sense of great melodrama built into the jeans issue. It looms large and comes close to overwhelming the actual end of Halston the man and designer – the AIDS diagnosis and personal suffering. Meanwhile, the series looks sumptuous at all times. You can only be wonderstruck by the colour, the dazzle of it all.

As Murphy has often done – in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and the polarizing Ratched for Netflix – his eye is on unseen history and the untold narratives of gay life. Visually he always leans toward the camp, gothic, gorgeously made drama and then puts a premium on the nuances of a gay life, that part of history that was never told before. He’s outright combative in this, telling viewers that the past they imagined did not exist or is entirely different when seen from a different perspective. He’s offering a new kind of scrutiny and while that will alienate some critics and reviewers, it’s important that it’s happening. Of course, the approach will alienate, but that’s his point.

Airing Tuesday – The Healthcare Divide (on Frontline, PBS, 10 p.m.) is a bracing look at how COVID-19 has highlighted outrageous disparities in American health care and, especially, the strain on large urban hospitals called “safety net” hospitals, with a mission to serve low-income, working-class communities. Even during the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, some private hospital chains were seeing billions of dollars in profit, while some “safety net” hospitals were closing, unable to stay afloat financially. For Canadian viewers, the program looks like a warning about the apocalypse.

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