Ryan Murphy’s Universe
The master of his sub-genre, whatever that is.
When Ryan Murphy first came to TV, it was as the co-creator (along with Gina Matthews) of the short-lived series Popular. Lasting two seasons and totaling forty-three episodes, The WB Television Network aired the show on the cusp of the twenty-first century, from 1999–2001. The show was a simple enough plot, centered on the forced relationship of high school students Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb), a socially revered cheerleader, and Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), an outcast journalist. Despite conflicting social circles, the two have to live together when their parents suddenly get engaged. The girls spend the first season trying to break their parents up, which actually works, and take the second season to try get them back together, after recognizing how happy their respective mother and father were together. Popular is almost too tame to be a stylistic predecessor to Glee, but offers a distinctly Murphy-esque tint with its series and Season 2 finale, which ended with Brooke getting run over by a car.
Murphy is the creator or co-creator of a slew of “seasonal anthology” series, namely American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and American Crime Story, as well as Nip/Tuck and The New Normal (I know), and even Glee (I know). It’s his more recent projects, wherein he experiments with the anthology series that he’s found true success, with the exception of Scream Queens, which excelled in its first season but quickly became a bit of a Glee in the second year. Following the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Murphy has announced that the next season will follow Hurricane Katrina (he’s already said that Season 3 is about the Gianni Versace murder and Season 4 is about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and trial). He’s also shared that the seventh season of American Horror Story will deal with the 2016 election, a more topical and timely horror than past seasons. This has received varied reactions, as viewers often turn to TV drama to get away from the very real drama that the country is dealing with right now, or look to late night comedy to help make sense of our current political scene.
Feud: Bette and Joan, which premiered Sunday night (2/5) on FX, is Murphy’s latest incarnation. The show chronicles the infamous Bette Davis and Joan Crawford feud, which reached a peak while filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Olivia de Havilland and narrates what is apparently a documentary about the two actresses, calling the notorious rivalry “a feud of biblical proportions.” She adds, “For nearly half a century they hated each other, and we loved them for it.”
Bette (Susan Sarandon) and Joan (Jessica Lange) are the kind of characters that would show up in a nightmare, but you’d also sort of be excited to find them there. The two decide to do What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? following a dry spell of movie casting, due in part to the fact that they’re no longer the “young starlets” that most of the Hollywood producers were set on casting. It’s a meditation on sexism in the workplace set to an iconic feud that’s impossible not to be obsessed with. In addition to Lange, Sarandon, and Zeta-Jones, the show features Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, and Kathy Bates, among others. Sarah Paulson (who consistently stars in American Horror Story and played Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson) will also be in the series starting next weekend. The show combines Murphy’s usual cast with a circuit of Mad Men actors, so the all-star performances are expected but nevertheless exciting.
Murphy has an aesthetic as specific as Wes Anderson and an empire that rivals Shonda Rhimes on ABC and Dick Wolf on NBC. His style is unique to the point that it can’t quite be defined, and has created a genuinely cult-like following. Like most of his other current series, Murphy plans to tackle many feuds in forthcoming seasons, including that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. This could be a hit or miss, but mostly likely some sort of success, as the style is more akin to the AHS archetype than that of Glee. Murphy’s greatest fault, the biggest threat to his franchise, is his tendency to “jump the shark” and sometimes do more damage than good in his attempt to execute the best shock factor and make the strongest statement.
The Dateline reporter who interviews Bette and Joan closes the pilot episode when she says, “Stars of the night sky tend to keep to fixed orbits and never interfere with one another.” She adds that “Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, stars of equal magnitude who ruled in motion pictures during the fabulous thirties, never got to know one another. Now, in the Indian summer of their careers, they’re about to.” And so are we.