Ryan Murphy just might be the iconoclastic arbiter of taste that television needs. With his keen sense of style, tone, and comedic timing, the showrunner has definitively changed the industry over the past couple of decades. As the creator of series like Glee, American Horror Story, Pose, American Crime Story, Feud, 9–1–1, The New Normal, Scream Queens, and Nip/Tuck, Murphy is a veteran, a veritable powerhouse of pop culture. And though each of the creator’s works are different, they all feel interconnected by Murphy’s singular vision. Looking back, Murphy’s career trajectory reads as exactly that: a career trajectory, in which every work is influenced by the one that came before and will have a part in what comes next. So, in honor of the release of Murphy’s latest series, The Politician, (the first of several projects to be released through his monumental Netflix deal), it’s time for a retrospective.
Nip/Tuck and The New Normal
Nip/Tuck (2003–2010), the first of Murphy’s shows to gain traction, is an early glimpse into his particular storytelling style. A satirical black–comedy thriller, Nip/Tuck is one part Dexter and one part Ugly Betty. The show features all the familiar benchmarks of Murphy’s works: an interesting cultural setting, lesser–known superstars in recurring guest spots, a latent class critique motif, camp, and, of course, drama. The show was both a critical and commercial success, ending its run with 100 episodes and 45 Emmy nominations.
And, if Nip/Tuck is Murphy’s firstborn, The New Normal (2012–2013) is its ugly younger sister. This is not to say that The New Normal is bad—it had a certain charm and was mostly beloved amongst its viewers. The primetime network sitcom, was like a different take on Modern Family. And it was good: it was campy, stylized, interesting, and funny. It wasn’t beloved by critics the way Nip/Tuck was, but sitcoms rarely are. Even still, the show was canceled after its first season due to poor ratings performance. So while it was a decent enough show, it’s fallen into relative obscurity, unknown, unreferenced and un-mourned by most.
So what do these two ostensibly disparate shows even have in common? Why list them together at all? The New Normal wasn’t the project that immediately followed Nip/Tuck and it, to some, may not seem a relevant part of Murphy’s career. But really, what makes these shows similar is their exclusion from the modern Murphy narrative. Both shows are instrumental to his journey, and yet, neither are discussed that often or even remembered that well in public consciousness. While Nip/Tuck was actually a success, neither show gets the credit they’re due. And they are due some credit.
Glee (2009–2015) is Murphy’s magnum opus. It displays all of the familiar aspects of early Murphy (see: a never–ending parade of recurring characters and stars) but it’s also a significant push for diversity—not just on Murphy’s end, but for television as a whole. And though looking back, some of the show’s choices could be subject to criticism (hiring an able–bodied person to play Artie, playing deafness and other disabilities for laughs) at the time, it was really remarkable. The deftness with which he handled Becky’s character (a student with down syndrome who was both funny and complex), the inclusion of LGBTQ issues, sex education, and some (albeit broad) critical race theory, all whilst maintaining a cohesive narrative is laudable.
Glee was always funny as a sharp and satirical look at American high schools and the portrayal of teenagers on television. It was joyful and musical. It was relatable to high schoolers living the experiences shown on TV as well as adults looking back on how serious everything felt back then. And Murphy’s ability to showcase all this through a rag–tag group of show choir contestants was amazing.
On every re–watch, the show gets better. And on every re–watch I find myself wanting to defend the show from the haters it's amassed over the years. This show was Murphy’s first concentrated foray into pushing the conversation forward and making people talk. Whether it be about diversity, body positivity, feminism, or LGBTQ rights, Glee was willing to talk about it.
American Horror Story
American Horror Story (2011) was a totally different side to Murphy. In fact, if your main exposure to Murphy’s work was Glee, the horror anthology would seem a total departure from his previous work, as if he was breaking off from pop culture for good. And yet, the vision of Murphy is everywhere in this show: cultural references, idiosyncratic characters, drama, intrigue, satire—it is all there.
This is most evident in Roanoke, the series’ sixth season. Split into two parts, Roanoke is set up as part–ghost story reenactment and part–aftermath. The show is a critical breakdown of Hollywood and television itself, but it’s a horror story, too. There’s something so interesting about the way Murphy works, intertwining every factoid and detail he wants without ever over–doing it. American Horror Story might be the first time he strikes the perfect balance between the narrative he wants to tell and the way he wants to tell it.
Scream Queens (2015–2016) functions as a hybrid of Glee and American Horror Story. Billed a genre–bending horror–comedy, the show is probably the clearest example of how Murphy uses each project to inform his next ones. Scream Queens even stars a number of audience favorites from both Glee and AHS: Coven. But it’s more than just the actors: The whole show is as if Murphy stitched together Rachel Berry exclaiming that she “needs applause to live” with Frances Conroy shouting out “Balenciaga!” right before she burns at the stake.
Scream Queens followed American Horror Story: Coven, one of the anthology’s most beloved seasons. And it’s difficult to imagine that the success of AHS: Coven didn’t play a part in the formation of Scream Queens at least a little bit. All of the parts are there: a house full of women facing death and destruction in highly aestheticized costumes and settings, attempting to survive while simultaneously being bogged down by petty arguments and feuds.
But Scream Queens is more than just horror: it’s a fun and campy romp about the young, attractive, and extremely dramatic. And Glee was too. Scream Queens' brightly colored palettes and satirical slant, for example, are classic Glee. But everything in Scream Queens feels a little more extreme. The influence of Glee feels almost corrective in Scream Queens—as if Murphy felt he needed to make the satire abundantly clear (after some missed the satire in Glee). Scream Queens never forgets to remind you that it’s “just joking”. This is perhaps its greatest downfall—it desperately wants everyone to be in on the joke, and as a result, the joke’s not that funny.
One of Murphy’s newer projects, Pose is an ode to Paris Is Burning with the heart of Glee and the head of American Psycho (or even American Crime Story). Murphy’s deep love of LGBTQ culture and music is most evident in this series. The show is deeply steeped in the late ’80s, featuring Patrick Bateman–types in suits, the black and brown faces of ball culture, and the rise of HIV/AIDS. Pose, like many of Murphy’s projects, is mainly concerned with culture and subculture, how they connect and play off of each other. It is here where Murphy’s commitment to diversity, incisive wit, and love of music is clearest. Beautifully complex, the show refuses to be bogged down by the stylized side of Murphy—it’s present, but, for a large portion of the show, it takes the backseat. Only when we go to a ball does Murphy’s eclecticism comes out: quick cuts, bright colors, campy close–ups. It is unabashedly "Ryan Murphy" and, to many, is his best show yet.
Ryan Murphy's mastery of the form becomes evident once you look back on his projects in sequence. The showrunner has demonstrated a keen ability to both admonish and admire the world’s banalities, but he is also intent on showing us something through that. Beyond the interconnected minutiae of each show, Murphy’s work is for the audience through his eyes. Each program feels like a message to us specifically, telling us something different.
Towards the end of The Politician, Georgina, played by the ever–iconic Gwyneth Paltrow, coaxes Payton (Ben Platt) to “find a way to bring music into [his] life”. This seems to be Murphy’s singular goal: bringing music, harmony, some kind of melodic joy, really, into audiences' lives. And he never fails to do so.