The Hallmarks Of A Ryan Murphy Show

Photo: Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock.
I will watch anything that Ryan Murphy puts on television. That's sort of a problem, because every other week the television creator seems to have a new show on the air. This week, it's Pose an FX series that features the largest transgender cast ever to exist on TV. But for every way that Pose is breaking new ground, it's doing so within Murphy's very established style.
It started with Popular in 1999, the short-lived high school dramedy that, following its cancelation, became a beloved cult series. One decade later, after Murphy gave the world plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck (the most bonkers medical show ever conceived, with its very own serial killer) Murphy birthed Glee. The musical high school dramedy teetered between an after-school special on acid and a heartwarming celebration of the underdog. (I watched every single episode... haters be damned.)
Advertisement
All of this was before Murphy gave the world anthology series American Horror Story, which Murphy could use as a playground for all of his most Murphy-isms. Fellow anthology series American Crime Story and Feud followed, with Fox's Scream Queens (a hybrid of Glee, Popular, and, oddly, AHS) also thrown into the timeline.
If we are living in Murphy's world, what makes it Murphy's world? You might be surprised to find the common threads in the producer's many works — threads that we are sure to see a lot more of, given Murphy's new, $300 million dollar deal with Netflix. Here are things you'll find in most, if not every, show that Murphy puts his name on.
1 of 6
Photo: Carin Baer/Fox-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
A Fierce Love Of The Confident Underdog

Some of Murphy's most notable characters are "underdogs" with huge aspirations. Rachel (Lea Michele), the main character on Glee, is a superstar in her own mind... who routinely has slushies thrown in her face by the popular cheerleaders. Before it, the series Popular also played with these dynamics, with smart, savvy Sam (Carly Pope) as the under-appreciated, "unpopular" student who has bigger goals than everyone around her.

Yet the presence of the scrappy underdog exists outside of Murphy's high school-set shows. In fact, even the shows that Murphy based on real-life historical events have characters who fit the bill.

On Feud, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) both believe themselves to be the "underdog" in their own story: Bette because she does not have Joan's movie star aesthetic, and Joan because her acting talents have never received the acclaim of Bette's. On American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson, Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is a confident lawyer who is forced to fight for scraps of respect. The villain of the second season of ACS, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), oozes with false bravado, but feels so rejected by society's elite (like Gianni Versace) that it drives him to madness.

It's worth wondering if these characters are a reflection of Murphy's own struggles to fit in. As the TV writer told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015:

"The only way to get through the life I had was just to have a big head of steam and determination... I would walk down the hallway in high school and be called 'fag,' but I'd never let it stop me."

He added:

"I had a goal even then: I wanted to make it through high school alive, and along the way, I was like, 'Well, why can't I be popular? Why can't I go to the prom? Why can't I be the president of this or that club?' That was always important to me."
2 of 6
Photo: Shepard-Robin Prods/Stu Segall Prods Inc./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
A Criticism Of Beauty Standards

As Nip/Tuck serial killer The Carver puts it: "Beauty is a curse on the world. It keeps us from seeing who the real monsters are." Murphy's series about plastic surgery was a routine criticism of how a beautiful aesthetic hides life's ugliness, but his other shows also explored what it means to be beautiful. American Horror Story: Coven showed Lange's Supreme witch Fiona literally murder a surgeon unable to make her youthful. Scream Queens routinely served up the truth about how sometimes the prettiest girls can be the cruelest. Glee, in one of its more saccharine of episodes, showed Rachel (Michele) contemplating a nose job to look more like Quinn (Dianna Agron), whom, it's revealed later, had gone under the knife herself.
Advertisement
3 of 6
Photo: Courtesy of FX.
A Strikingly Gorgeous Aesthetic

If Murphy is critical of society's beauty standards, he is clearly appreciative of beauty onscreen. Every single one of his shows — yes, even network procedural 9-1-1 — has a distinct, cinematic look. (Never forget that roller coaster rescue, which looked like it could be from a movie starring The Rock.)

Every frame is carefully considered so that it's pure eye-candy. From Murphy's recreation of the Versace mansion on season 2 of American Crime Story to the Countess' bright-white quarters of American Horror Story's Hotel Cortez, you could watch every Murphy show silently and still get some enjoyment out of the experience.

There's color — so much of it. Red bloodbaths on American Horror Story. The comic book-esque wardrobes of the cast of Glee. Joan's pastel mansion on Feud. Murphy, if you ever want to talk paint schemes for my apartment... I'm all ears.
4 of 6
Photo: 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
A Passion For Family, In All Its Forms

At its core, most of Murphy's show have something important to say about family. Popular is about two high schoolers from different cliques who become stepsisters, and find themselves unexpectedly bonded. Glee is about underdogs coming together to create their own kind of family. Even Nip/Tuck, for all its outrageousness, always comes back to the unlikely brotherhood between plastic surgeons Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon).

Yet it's American Horror Story that, perhaps, shows just how deep this theme runs. Most seasons of the series come back to family. In the finale of Murder House, the series' first offering, the ghosts of the Harmon clan, who were not able to create a functioning family unit while alive, seem to find happiness with one another in death. Coven brings together ostracized witches; Freak Show, humans on the fringes of society. Hotel, much like Murder House, concludes with the lonely ghosts of the Hotel Cortez realizing they had one another all along.

Then there is Pose, his latest, about the community of chosen family in the New York ball scene.

I'm not crying, you're crying?
5 of 6
Photo: Jim Smeal/REX/Shutterstock.
Evan Peters & Sarah Paulson

Murphy is no stranger to a star-studded cast, and frequently employees huge names, like Lady Gaga. However, it's worth noting that he's also helped deliver relatively unknown talents unto the world.

Murphy worked with Paulson for the first time on Nip/Tuck, where she had a small guest spot, then "re-discovered" her for a bit role on American Horror Story: Murder House. The rest is history, with Paulson winning an Emmy for playing Marcia Clarke and signing on for another Murphy show — One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest spin-off, Ratched, coming soon to Netflix.

"Like me, I think Sarah felt, growing up, that she was a stranger in a strange land and that she didn't have a lot of support," Murphy told Elle in an interview. "So as somebody who loves her, I just want her to know, 'No, I support you in every way.'"

Murphy also made Evan Peters a coveted star. Peters' role as deeply troubled Tate on Murder House led to the actor returning for every season of AHS, where he became a fan favorite and ultimately portrayed everyone from a H.H. Holmes-inspired serial killer to Andy Warhol. He now stars on Pose.
6 of 6
Photo: FX Network/Photofest.
Music Is Everything

You don't make Glee if you hate music, and you definitely don't include Jessica Lange singing a Lana Del Rey cover in American Horror Story's Freak Show. Murphy's work finds new, interesting ways to incorporate music (often of the pop variety), even when it makes little sense. (How does Del Rey's "Gods and Monsters" make it to 1952?) Pose certainly features plenty of musical moments, because, well, it's Murphy: musical spectacle is part of the deal.
Advertisement

More from TV

Watch

R29 Original Series