Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Murphy’s Lawlessness

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Trae Patton/NBC

Andrew Rannells as Bryan and Justin Bartha as David in The New Normal.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that ran earlier this week, Ryan Murphy said, “You either love me or you hate me.” In my essay in the new print issue of TIME magazine (subscription required), I beg to differ: it is quite possible to do both at the same time.

I’m not talking about Murphy personally: he might be a delightful person or a terrible one, and either way it makes the same difference (none) to me as a critic. But his shows are the Schrödinger’s Cats of television, capable of occupying a hated and loved status for this viewer simultaneously. In fact—and three-plus years of interacting with fellow Glee fans has convinced me it’s not just me—I’m not sure it’s possible to do otherwise than to both love and hate his shows. (Well, except for the people who just hate them across the board.) As I say in the piece, other TV superproducers tend to make consistent kinds of series: Shonda Rhimes, Dick Wolf, Seth MacFarlane. Murphy instead makes series in a consistent mode: which is to say, inconsistency.

That’s only partly about quality. I had to cut a lot from my essay for space, and one thing that ended up on my editor’s floor is that the “mash-up”—the signature musical feature of Glee, in which two songs are combined into one—is a kind of symbol of Murphy’s preferred creative style. He likes to smush dissonant things together: comedy and drama, realism and caricature, sincerity and cynicism.

As a result, his shows can feel wildly different even within the same hour. Glee, as I’ve written here often, can go from a deeply human, moving scene with Kurt Hummel and his dad and whiplash you into a ludicrous Sue Sylvester subplot. And if you plotted my reactions to an episode of The New Normal on a graph, it would look like a hummingbird’s EKG, up down, up down: I love the chemistry between the central couple, Bryan and David, and I wince at the conservative cartoonery of Ellen Barkin’s Nana.

Murphy’s shows, I’ve decided, at best work kind of like an inconsistent pop album: the whole thing may not hold together, and yet you have the occasional single every now and then that transcends the whole, that implies everything missing in the stretches in between. That’s where Glee works best, for instance and, as I wrote reviewing the new season of American Horror Story, this is why that series is probably Murphy’s best on air right now: because of its material, it can function on a primal level, beyond logic, of shock and signifiers.

I’ve learned well enough not to expect consistency from Ryan Murphy, but inconsistency is not always a deal-breaker for me. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from all of you over the years about Glee, but I’m curious to hear what Tuned Inlanders think about The New Normal or American Horror Story: Asylum. Are any of you along for the ride?

4 comments
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johnhensler
johnhensler

I've thought much the same about Glee this year. The Britney 2.0 episode was very weak, but the breakup episode was one of the best of the last two seasons.  As for The New Normal, agree.  The Ellen Barkin character is simply a retread of the worst of Sue Sylvester (who in her own world on Glee endures neck-snapping pivots of behavior, sometimes in a single episode). It's easy enough for Murphy to offer commentary on gays and religion - like in a recent TNN episode letting the lead characters do the heavy lifting - without a cartoonish beatdown from Barkin.  Maybe he thinks he needs that Nana character to offer entry into the story for some... I really don't think that's necessary myself.

cococather
cococather

One thing that makes his shows so successful is that he has the knack of casting the exactly the right actors for the roles in his shows. I've found while watching Glee that some of the actors (the best of the bunch like Colfer, Michele, Monteith and the great Jane Lynch) transcend the sometimes very bad dialogue that they have to spit out. IMO, that's one of the biggest reasons why that show was a such great hit. The ensemble cast was so charming, you couldn't help loving their antics. And a lot of fans say they are still sticking it out despite falling out of love with the show itself because they love the actors so much. I've found that this is also the case with The New Normal. Andrews Rannells and Justin Bartha are very good individually in their roles and also great together. I think Georgia King makes Goldie much more watchable than if she had been played by a less presentable actress. I don't know if this pertains to Ryan Murphy's talents as a showrunner, but casting the right people is an important part of the process. So he's doing something right. 

lincolnsrottingcorpse
lincolnsrottingcorpse

In my opinion, American Horror Story : Asylum is the best show on television. Initially, I had reservations about this new season of AHS living up to the incredible creepfest that was season one. But after this week's episode, I now believe it has the capacity to even surpass last season.

SethM
SethM

You are SPOT on.  I find myself LOVING many episodes of Glee, and other times frustrated and angry at level of inconsistency.  I love American Horror Story, but cannot bring myself to watch another second of The New Normal.  The best example of Ryan's work is Popular.  The first season was one of televisions best written hours.  The second season, one of the worst.  Nip/Tuck too went from incredible to pathetic.  Murphy usually ignores what the audience seems to like, instead, stubbornly going in his own direction, focusing on characters he loves, not the ones that actually hold a show together.  Sometimes it works, often times it falls flat.

Thanks for hitting the nailon the head.