In our current ‘golden’ age of television, those long running shows which feature the most shades of grey or offer up the more morally ambiguous characters seem to get all the attention. Whether it’s The Wire, Borgen, Mad Men or Breaking Bad, these programmes’ subtle nuances and their refusal to simplify are cited as their greatest strengths.
Yet there’s one man whose work has completely bucked that trend, and it’s made him one of the most prolific and successful producers in US television. Ryan Murphy’s shows deal almost entirely in extremes, producing television serials that revel in the grotesque and the intensely brazen, things that don’t necessarily fit into the assumed template for high profile modern day TV. Murphy is the demented plastic surgeon of this golden age, a writer who’s never met a stereotype he didn’t want to exploit and a director who’s never seen a performance that he didn’t think was too off-the-wall. Subtlety be damned.
Murphy started out in television very much the way he meant to go on. His 1999 high school comedy drama Popular was as loud and brash as anything else at the time – a precursor to Glee (minus the cover songs) that may have only lasted two seasons, but set out a lot of what Murphy’s future work would look like. Big characters, wacky comedy, a colourful rainbow of different sexualities, some hot button topics and people being very, very bitchy to each other. Any series that gives one episode the absurdly long title of You Don’t Tug On Superman’s Cape…You Don’t Spit Into The Wind…You Don’t Pull The Mask Off The Ol’ Lone Ranger… And You Don’t Mess Around With Big Bertha Muffin is clearly a series comfortable in its outré nature.
Murphy made a much bigger splash with his next show, one that lived and died by the shock factor – his 2003 creation Nip/Tuck, a show about two screwed up plastic surgeons that spent six messy seasons trying to think up ever more insane storylines with which to appal audiences. It would take forever to list them all here, but the ones that instantly spring to mind include giving Botox injections to a baby, a woman carving off her breast with an electric carving knife and a necrophiliac using body parts to piece his dead sister back together so he can have sex with the corpse. Calling it ‘over-the-top’ would be a severe understatement. This is a show that looked to remove a suspicious character from being considered as a rapist serial killer by revealing that he has no penis (spoiler alert: he used a dildo).
It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of Nip/Tuck, a drama that showcased Murphy’s predilection for the bizarre and the fringes of society. It’s a minor miracle that the show lasted as long as it did, but controversy sells, something Murphy and his team of writers knew only too well. Any character development of central duo Sean and Christian was secondary to keeping the show’s reputation as a drama that doesn’t just push boundaries, but violently tongue kisses said boundaries and then stabs them to death. No show Murphy has done since has gone quite as far as Nip/Tuck in detailing the freakier side of humanity’s wants and desires.
So where on earth do you go from there? In Murphy’s typically unpredictable fashion, you can’t go any darker, so why not go neon bright? Which brings us to Glee, another divisive programme, albeit for entirely different reasons than Nip/Tuck. Launched in 2009 to impressive ratings, Glee was an instant smash hit, taking the high school template that Murphy had toyed with in Popular and injecting it with songs. Lots and lots of songs, delivered by beaming students with very active jazz hands. Hitting an audience who wouldn’t have gone near Nip/Tuck with a bargepole, Glee still talked about edgier topics – homophobia, guns in schools, teen sex – but did it with a toothy beam rather than a cynical smirk. Many found it overbearing, yet plenty more found it hugely entertaining, Glee earning Murphy his biggest audience figures to date.
It’s a measure of Murphy’s style that Glee burnt out pretty quickly. It might have run for six seasons, but its cultural cachet and juggernaut ratings died only a couple of seasons in. That’s the problem when you try and run at full pelt. You run out of breath pretty quickly.
Only a couple of years later, Murphy found the perfect antidote to running out of steam in the form of American Horror Story. Instead of using the same setting across a number of years, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk went with an anthology set-up, using a number of the same cast members but changing the setting and characters every single year. Which gives the writers the opportunity to go full tilt, then start over again the next year. And boy, does AHS go full tilt.
By the second year, the show was already throwing in aliens, Anne Frank, Nazi scientists, an exorcism and a serial killer called Bloody Face. Subsequent seasons have brought us killer clowns, a vampire orgy massacre, a minotaur, a snuff film in which Jessica Lange has her legs cut off with a chainsaw and a scene where Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks floats around a house singing directly to camera because… well, just because. Most years rush towards a madcap finale in which you get the sense the writers have suddenly remembered how few episodes are left and just throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. It’s messy, but you couldn’t call it boring.
That heightened tone followed through into Murphy’s Scream Queens, a pop culture obsessed horror comedy series that plays like an unholy blend of Glee (manic performances) and American Horror Story (lots of gore). One note characters are coupled to shrill scripts, displaying the worst of Murphy’s tendencies to play everything to the gallery. It’s undoubtedly his worst series, feeling like a slapdash creation that Ash Vs Evil Dead outdoes at every comic horror turn.
It’s worth noting that the show which doesn’t necessarily fit Murphy’s template is the one that he didn’t write a single episode of, namely American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson. Showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski penned half of the episodes, leaving Murphy to produce and direct. The result is a much tidier series, one that eschews the highs and lows of Murphy’s previous output for something more level-headed. Which is perhaps due to necessity, dealing as it does with a real-life story and real-life people. It’s much easier to go crazy when nobody can sue you.
Murphy’s shows inevitably invite aggressive reactions. He’s faced attacks from both conservatives and liberals, men and women, gay and straight, his sledgehammer style riling up every substrata of society. On one side he’ll be praised for using actors with Down’s syndrome in Glee and American Horror Story, on the other side he’ll be criticised for not utilising them properly. Some commentators will laud his commitment to showcasing same sex relationships in all his shows, others will lambast him for reinforcing gay stereotypes.
There’s a very revealing quote in a Hollywood Reporter interview conducted last year. In it he declares that “people think I’m just sort of this P.T. Barnum, razzle-dazzle guy, they think I go out of my way to be outlandish and theatrical at the expense of having emotions. They don’t get that there’s another side to me, and I keep trying to show that other side.”
And he has tried to show that other side, most obviously with US network comedy The New Normal, a semi-autobiographical piece about two gay men who ask a woman to be their surrogate (Murphy has two children with his husband David, both carried by a surrogate). Beneath all the snark and stereotypes that we’ve come to expect, there was real heart in it.
The New Normal was cancelled after one series. Audiences don’t want emotion from Ryan Murphy. Even when his shows manage to touch on something special, most notably Denis O’Hare’s moving portrayal of a transgender character in AHS: Hotel, it’s soon drowned out by all the murder, rape and insanity.
Audiences can get subtle writing and complex emotional relationships from any number of other TV shows today. They’re spoilt for choice. It’s just that sometimes you’re not in the mood for delving into a labyrinthine literary novel.
Sometimes you want a trashy potboiler.
Sometimes you want a programme that features a man who has sex with his furniture.
Sometimes you want a Ryan Murphy show.