Before anything else gets started here, let’s be candid:  any creative person shouldn’t get a free pass just for tackling diverse or queer subject matters.  It still has to have a point of view, be entertaining and – to the extent that the individual contributor can influence their outcome – be well made. 

 

Ryan Murphy.  Dear, queer, big-time producer of television; he who has reconceptualized the very idea of a limited series, has a lot to say; and says it over and over again through a wide variety of productions in the last decade.  At this writing, Murphy has received six primetime Emmy Awards from 28 nominations, a Tony Award from two nominations, and has been nominated for Grammy’s.  He signed the single largest development deal in television history for his record-making pact with Netflix.  And, he has been singled out for “bringing the marginalized to the masses.”  

 Longshotz

It’s all watchable.  But it is good?   Let’s review the brief, productive history of Mr. Murphy.

 

NIP/TUCK – easily one of his most watchable television shows, this show about plastic surgeons and their over-amplified sex lives (really, that is what is was about at it’s core), Murphy created, wrote, directed and produced the series for seven memorable series.  It was outlandish at the time, pushed all sorts of borders that needed to pushed at the time; and actually – remarkably, given the context of the series – provided many moments of quality, literate storytelling about love, marriage, acceptance and the passage of time.  On the Murphy Scale (1 – 5), this would a solid FOUR. 

 

GLEE  – the problem with Glee is that the quality of the show ran rampant from week to week, with “on” weeks providing exceptional television production that used music as part of a profound narration on love, death and growing up.  The next week could just as possible be an “off” week, and just a mess.  Given the see-sawing quality, that deteriorated into more “off” weeks as the series progressed over six seasons, this would lands with a THREE on the Murphy Scale.

 

AMERICAN HORROR STORY – more than any other of his series, this is his hallmark, the program that redefined how an anthology series with a rotating core of actors, could make an impact. And for the first few, almost unforgettable seasons (“Murder House”, “Asylum”, “Coven”, “Freak Show”) he and his close-knit troupe was hitting every high mark.  American Horror Story was over the top, sure, but you knew that going in and were just waiting for his actors to benignly over-act to the consumption of the television masses.  Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Angela Bassett – please come home.   The last few seasons have been more scattershot with their quality, with some exceptional (“Cult”, whose horror premise is drawn out of the politics that has scarred America more than any ghost or witch ever could) and some delusional (“1984” being so blind to playing homage to 80’s slasher-movie tropes that it fell into the same formulaic problems.  You know you are close to the bottom of the barrel when Matthew Morrison is the subject of a season-long dick joke, or when the producers felt inclined to try to link all the seasons together.  Fact:  they work because they aren’t linked).  My favorite of the bunch was “Hotel”, an atmospheric and, yes, scary exercise of a ghost story that introduced Lady Gaga as an actor.  If I could rate each individually, they would range from a ONE to a FIVE, but collectively, AHS will garner a THREE on the Murphy Scale because of the inconsistency season to season. 

 

SCREAM QUEENS limped along for two seasons.  It was almost unbearably self-aware and nearly impossible to watch.  The first season drew upon the 80’s slasher motif (even before it was used only slightly better in AHS); and I’m not sure what happened in the second season.  Like many viewers, I gave up long before that.  As a comedy it wasn't funny; and as a suspense parody, it was laughable.   On the Murphy Scale, a ONE. 

 

AMERICAN CRIME STORY has been one of the high points in Murphy’s career, with season one focusing on OJ Simpson (and winning all sorts of awards) and season two on the Gianni Versace murderer, also winning all sorts of awards and making Darren Criss an actual, big-time star.  The only bad point about this series is that it not regularly scheduled, so there no guarantee of any future seasons but given the gold standard these first two achieved, maybe it’s ok to wait a little longer.  “The Murder of Gianni Versace” had one of the best filmed/edited/orchestrated scenes in the last decade as we are introduced to killer Andrew Cunanan walking the streets of Miami minutes before the deed to swells of operatic music.  It still gives me chills.  This one, collectively, is the high point and earns a FIVE on the Murphy Scale. 

 

9-1-1 and it’s spin-off, 9-1-1 LONE STAR,  are Murphy’s ode to over the top episodic procedural television.  Not terribly good but not terribly bad, both are a a time-waster of a series; and a THREE on the Murphy Scale. It just doesn't try very hard. 

 

POSE.   Here we go.  I’m going to get mail.  Probably hateful mail.  Because here is where I say again, producers don’t get a free pass for embracing diversity and marginalized stories without telling a good story in the context of those situations.  Pose, simply, doesn’t do that.  It’s about the African-American/Latin non-gender-conforming ballroom dancing culture in the 1980’s, who belongs to different “houses” within this subculture and tend to and nurture one another in challenging times.  Not only is it a hard “sell” of a story (and I’m not suggesting it should become more mainstream to be effective, not at all), almost every character and situation is so completely predictable in context of their world that it’s, well, a bit boring.  We’ve seen HIV/AIDS stories before, and done better.  We’ve seen the marginalized youth-on-their-own stories before, and done better.  We’ve seen some of the extreme and graphic depictions of fringe society done before, and with played with less shock value.  We’ve seen the platitudes that are hammered into every story about acceptance and love done better, and with a more deft hand.  Mr. Murphy, you’ve managed to create a cookie-cutter approach to life lessons, now, how about some subtlety?  On the Murphy Scale, it’s a TWO.  And only that, for some of the music choices; and for introducing the world-at-large to Billy Porter, who is better as himself than as the character he plays on the show. 

 

Also near the top of the Murphy catalog is FEUD, a fictional account of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange).  It’s got bite, it’s got a “through” plot that gives the mini-series a real sense of beginning, middle and end.  Nominated for eighteen Emmy Awards, this was stellar programming – from the production values that recreated key scenes in the lives of Davis & Crawford, to costuming to wringing some real emotional connection to the characters in a way that didn’t smack viewers over the head with a scene that demanded an immediate reaction.  Another “occasionally scheduled” series, there isn’t a second season yet, but we can only hope for the next, great Feud.  The first go-round gets a rapturous FIVE on the Murphy Scale. 

 

THE POLITICIAN.  Murphy’s first Netflix show. Where to start?  Ben Platt as a high school student when he looks like he is just this side of forty.  Jessica Lange as a grandmother who is prostituting her grand-daughter’s health to elicit the kindness of strangers.  Gwyneth Paltrow as Platt’s mother (she could play his sister) who, in due course, is another “shocking-when-she-comes-out-of-the-closet-characters” that litter Murphy’s point of view.  The basic premise:  Platt is a high schooler who believes, earnestly, that he will be president someday and that begins with a run for high school student body president.  It’s all just sort of awful at every level:  the writing is absurd and not in an entertaining way; the actors all fail their characters and I get the impression they all just showed up for their checks; nearly everyone is mis-cast; there are plot loopholes and time seems act weirdly (this is a common conceit for many of Murphy’s shows – some things happen in a weird abbreviated or extended timeframe, but it doesn’t seem to impact all the characters in the same way…it’s hard to convey, but also happens in “Horror Story” frequently); we get all the ham-handed moral conjecture that is a Murphy staple, but here those are amped so much they become unwittingly funny.  This one is a failure at literally every level – with one exception.  The last episode does a time jump to find a slightly older Platt contemplating what comes next and sets the stage for season two, which would seem to point toward a mostly-new cast and direction that (based on the last episode) seems profoundly better made.  So, until season two delivers an entertainment hail-mary, on the Murphy Scale, this lands with a big thud with a ONE. 

 

HOLLYWOOD.  The latest Murphy show, set in late-40’s Hollywood, is an uneasy mix of real life people (ie, Rock Hudson) and imaginary characters intermixing in various plotlines involving (you guessed it), love, marriage, gay rights, race, acceptance and the marginalized in society.  These have now become Murphy’s go-to themes, and the problem is, he has done them all already and in many cases, has done them better.  Now, granted, Hollywood has some entertaining moments.  Darren Criss returns as a first time film director and he is spirited.  Patti Lupone plays a Hollywood tycoon who employs an occasional male gigolo; Dylan McDermott (another frequent Murphy stock player) is really quite good as the hustler-come-pimp from whose gas station the gigolo’s work.  All of these plotlines weave in and out before colliding in a “hey gang, let’s make a movie” scenario that ultimately plays out at a faux Academy Awards show.  I just didn’t like it, despite the stellar cast, great costumes and great central idea of doing a show in old Hollywood.  It never quite came together; and Jim Parsons as a degenerate agent (based on a real person) gives a career-low performance.    Murphy Scale:  TWO

 

So – that’s it.  I’ve avoided movies and plays because it’s not entirely fair to rate one medium against another, but this is the high-level countdown of the television of Ryan Murphy.  It’s easy to connect some dots, in that his work is much better if based on another source (“Crime Story” and “Feud”) and it seems the longer a series goes for Murphy, the worse it gets, sometimes dropping off a sheer cliff from one season to the next.   But, even for those things that aren’t “great”, remember:  33-+they are all watchable. 

 

Overall from me – Ryan Murphy is mass producing popcorn for the masses.  Tasty, with some nasty kernels.  

 

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