Borders Line: The Problem With Ryan Murphy

What do POPULAR, NIP/TUCK, GLEE and AMERICAN HORROR STORY have in common besides Ryan Murphy?

At the behest of some commenters, I decided to catch up on Ryan Murphy’s new FX show American Horror Story in order to review it for BAD. The show is absolutely nutballs in a way that I find both incredibly dumb and somewhat cool. It’s a strange, rather creepy show with a lofty concept that doesn’t entirely translate to engaging storytelling. That’s a quality shared by Ryan Murphy’s other shows—high concept, negligent execution—and it’s frustrating, because I’ve found myself drawn in by the premise of every single Ryan Murphy show, only to be disappointed every single time.

Let’s take them one by one, shall we?


Popular, 1999-2001, The WB

Popular debuted my senior year in high school. The pilot premiered four days after the Freaks and Geeks pilot, and the two shows shared a high school cools vs. uncools premise that naturally appealed to me at a pretty uncool time of my life. Popular outlasted Freaks and Geeks by one season, mostly because The WB was more forgiving of modest ratings than NBC.

Popular tells the story of Brooke McQueen, gentle high school goddess, and Sam McPherson, snarky high school nobody—a nobody in that way of incredibly beautiful actresses on television. Brooke and Sam’s parents fall in love and the two girls are forced, to their mutual dismay, to become sisters. The show is fun when it’s not disconcertingly hyperactive. Where Freaks and Geeks was subtle and authentic, Popular was wackily surreal.

Popular was quirky and often funny, but rarely able to address weighty issues (bullying, insecurity, bulimia) without resorting to schmaltz. I lived the central storyline of Popular not once but twice, being suddenly gifted with more popular step-sisters my own age from both of my parents' second marriages, and I still never found anything to relate to in Popular. That’s a tough thing to accomplish in a show, but Ryan Murphy, with his chronic inability to portray legitimate human emotions, managed just fine.


Nip/Tuck, 2003-2010, FX

Nip/Tuck had a rather deliciously trashy premise that I found highly engaging at first. Drs. Sean McNamara and Christian Troy have a plastic surgery practice in Miami. Christian is a dangerously narcissistic playboy; Sean is a conflicted, self-righteous family man. Each week they are confronted with increasingly bizarre patient requests and their own personal dramas. The show also featured completely disgusting plastic surgery scenes as an added bonus.

Nip/Tuck (co-created by Brad Falchuk, who also works on Glee and American Horror Story) lasted longer than any other Ryan Murphy show to date—although I have no doubt that Glee will outlive all of us—and it allows a glimpse into what happens when Murphy is allowed to develop a show over a matter of seven years. It gets weird. Very weird.

In seasons two and three, a creepily masked serial rapist named The Carver begins attacking those connected with Troy and Christian. This storyline goes on for far too long, with repeated rape scenes now interspersed with the increasingly gross plastic surgery segments. Murphy did a 180° from Popular, creating a show with no bright colors, random troubadours or sappy musical montages. But he still manages to render beloved characters unrecognizable and only portray the most superficial of human connections. Troy and Christian later began to switch back and forth, weekly alternating between which character would play the conscientious, sensitive soul and which would play the thoughtless asshole. They swapped lovers and issues with equal triviality. Nip/Tuck may have proven that Murphy could go dark, but it certainly never proved that he could go deep.


Glee, 2009-the end of time, Fox

There are few, if any, shows that I wanted to like as badly as I did Glee. A musical television show about dorky show choir kids! The musical numbers alternate pop songs with Broadway hits and all of the actors are terrific dancers who do their own singing. Jane Lynch stars as a megalomaniacal cheerleading coach. This show sounds perfect on paper! I understand that this sentiment will not be shared by many of you, but much of the country are passionate fans of musical theater. You may not get it, but lots of people don't get video games. The bafflement of others doesn't make an interest invalid.

Glee started out with a really refreshing tone--sweet and snarky. The show offers an admirable anti-bullying message in every episode, but the moment the soap-boxing begins to near overly earnest territory, Jane Lynch snarks the episode back into line. I think it's tremendous that a show about tolerance--of race, of sexual orientation, of disability--is one of the most popular television shows in America.

All of that said, Glee is borderline unwatchable these days. In true and typical Ryan Murphy fashion, the characters have become caricatures, the storylines have become insipid and the jokes have become tired. The musical numbers, however, remain fully rad.

American Horror Story, 2011-?, FX

Which brings us to American Horror Story, a show that premiered on FX last month. I've only watched three episodes of this show--I plan to catch up tonight in time to post a review of Wednesday's latest episode tomorrow. Here's what I know about American Horror Story: the above promo pic features a pregnant Connie Britton being menaced by someone in a GIMP SUIT. And that's a pretty fair representation of the show in its entirety. The Harmon family has moved to Los Angeles from Boston to escape their troubled past: cellist Vivien's (Britton) miscarriage, psychiatrist Ben's (Dylan McDermott) infidelity, daughter Violet's (Taissa Farmiga) cutting habits. Their new home is haunted, like, seven different ways, because literally every person who has ever lived there has died in gruesome fashion. The neighbors are maybe ghosts, the maid is maybe a ghost, Ben's patients are probably ghosts, it's entirely possible that we'll discover that the Harmons themselves are ghosts.

I won't get into the show too much here since I'm posting the review tomorrow, but suffice it to say that American Horror Story's version of deep relationships are characters sleeping with and then slapping one another, and its version of horror includes many quick flashes of creepy faces and fetuses in jars. Here's the promo:

I just don't get it. Ryan Murphy's wheelhouse appears to consist solely of quirky and schmaltzy or creepy and trashy. He's all premise and no execution. He has these fun, interesting, original ideas, and then as soon as it's time for him to develop those into a sustainable narrative, it seems that he gets bored and checks out. All four of these shows are made of intriguing concepts, but not one of them is good in the most important way, which is to say consistently compelling and in any way relatable. One thing all four shows have in common is a portrayal of outcast teens. Even on the shows that don't take place in high school, Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story, the main characters have teenage children who feel alienated and out of place. I think his intended message of tolerance and of accepting your own differences is commendable, but I wish the presentation weren't quite so superficial.

So tune in tomorrow for my review of this week's episode of American Horror Story. Expect it to get weird. Like pregnant/gimp sex weird.