Murphy's Lawlessness

For better and worse, a superproducer deals in chaos

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When a TV creator attains superproducer status, with several hits at once, it's usually by offering a consistent product. Dick Wolf (Law & Order) likened his cop shows to a brand, like Campbell's soup. Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy) gives us emotional workplace dramas. Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), cartoon animals making penis jokes.

Not so Ryan Murphy. He has three thriving shows on air, each different in genre and subject matter. His flagship, Glee, on Fox, is a high school musical about dreams, outcasts and romance. The New Normal, which debuted in September on NBC, is a sitcom about a gay couple and their hired surrogate mother. FX's American Horror Story is a high-camp bloodbath, heady with sex, gore and religion.

Murphy's brand is unpredictability, and that is both curse and blessing. His shows share a hyperstylized creative ADD, jerking from drama to comedy and back, piling on twists and burning through story. His product is creative chaos--consistent inconsistency. It has made him one of the most bracing, exciting producers in TV, one of the most successful and one of the most frustrating.

Murphy's first two shows were standard TV formats with a twist. Popular, his 1999--2001 high school drama on the late WB, was a proto-Glee, a marriage of outrageousness, earnestness and a wry camp sensibility. Nip/Tuck, which debuted in 2003 on FX, was a dark, sex-drenched soap about Miami plastic surgeons. It ran hot, fast and outrageous: there was a serial killer, gangsters smuggling heroin in women's implants and a (surprisingly moving) subplot involving a blow-up doll. In Season 5, Murphy blew up the premise, moving the doctors to L.A. and turning the show into a Hollywood satire.

Popular and Nip/Tuck showed Murphy's taste for working in extremes and paradoxes: sunshine and sin, pop and subversion, cynicism and moralizing. (Each Nip/Tuck episode began with a patient being asked, "Tell me what you don't like about yourself," a not-too-subtle comment on social pressure for perfection.) Glee blitzed those together and added a soundtrack of polished pop covers. Exhilarating and archly funny with a core of sadness (the setting was recession-struck Lima, Ohio), Glee debuted in spring 2009, and it captured something about the Obama era: a celebration of pluralism--kids of all races, religions, physical abilities and sexual identities--in an era of diminished opportunity. It was especially strong with LGBT characters. (Murphy, himself gay, came out as a teen.) Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) is one of the most rounded gay characters on TV: a smart, complicated kid who's both conflicted and confident, selfish and lovable.

But by Season 2 Glee started to derail. Nasty cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) went from breakout character to overexposed one-liner-bot. The cast mushroomed. Theme episodes built around the catalogs of Madonna and Britney Spears felt like iTunes-download factories. Plot twists were sprung--pregnancy! domestic abuse! Sue Sylvester for Congress!--and discarded. As Nip/Tuck did, Glee seemed to grow bored with itself.

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