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?