On Sunday night, Ryan Murphy premiered yet another new TV show, called Feud, which focuses on the infamous feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The show is just the latest in Murphy’s growing empire of anthology series. He currently has three anthology series he’s working on, with multiple seasons announced for each. Last week, he announced that the second season of Feud will focus on Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Last year’s American Crime Story — which in its first season focused on the O.J. Simpson trial — will next take on Hurricane Katrina, and then the assassination of Gianni Versace, followed by a fourth season on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And then there’s his first anthology series, American Horror Story, which was renewed for seasons seven, eight, and nine — Murphy recently said the next season will take on the themes of the 2016 presidential election.
On this week’s episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, we discuss Ryan Murphy’s ever-expanding TV universe; his latest show, Feud; and the tradition of TV creators airing multiple shows at once. Listen to the episode, and read part of our conversation below.
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Gazelle Emami: I thought we could start by talking about, how common is it for a TV creator to have this many TV shows going on at the same time?
Matt Zoller Seitz: It’s actually not that uncommon. It often happens that an executive producer, usually somebody who’s almost like more of an impresario than a hands-on type of person, has a bunch of different shows on the air. Desilu Productions had as many as a dozen shows actively in production at one time; and in theory, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were overseeing all of those. But of course, no there’s no possible way. You hire people that you trust, and you let them run the show. That’s the extreme, but Dick Wolf at one point had Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. It was like Law & Order: Parking Violations and Law & Order: Tax Assessor’s Office. I mean, it was ridiculous. Norman Lear at one point in the ’70s had like five or six.
GE: What seems to me to be different between him and these other creators is there’s kind of this sheen of prestige with everything that he does.
Jen Chaney: Camp prestige, I would say.
MZS: I was gonna say, maybe prestige is not quite exactly what he brings, you know?
GE: I think because he has big-name stars on these shows, that makes it feel prestige-y. Like when you have Susan Sarandon, Cuba Gooding Jr., and John Travolta starring on your TV shows, people are going to think of them in a different way than they do something like Law & Order, where they’re pumping it out.
JC: But what’s interesting about that Law & Order comparison is that — as you just went down that list of shows that he’s doing — there is this “ripped from the headlines” element, more and more, to what he’s doing with each of these different franchises, which I think is kind of interesting. It’s a more imaginative “ripped from the headline.” A more creative way of doing it than Law & Order did, but there is an element of that.
GE: It’s almost like he’s bringing the biopic to television in a way.
MZS: Well, there’s certainly a tradition for this kind of story. In fact, the heyday for the kind of thing like Feud, the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford experience — that’s the kind of thing, where 15 to 20 years ago, that would’ve been a mini-series, and it would’ve run on ABC. I have been noticing for quite some time that television tends to have a much better track record with interesting behind-the-scenes docudramas about show business, than they do with almost any other kind of real-life thing that they do. When they tell stories of war or a presidency, it’s often very superficial or scattered. But show biz, I think because the people involved with it know it so well, it tends to have more of a bite. When I was writing TV: The Book with Alan Sepinwall, we had a section on mini-series and movies; and we made our list, and before we narrowed it down, it was very heavily weighted toward show-biz subjects. Actually two of them — Me and My Shadows, the Judy Garland two-parter with Judy Davis, ended up being in the book as one of the ten best mini-series; and James Dean, the TNT movie with James Franco, which was excellent. We could do a whole show just on good show-biz stuff, but I think what this one does differently is it’s just more detailed. To have an entire season to play with it really does feel like you’re reading one of those big, fat nonfiction books about the making of a particular movie. That’s what this show reminds me of the most, is the experience of reading a 300 or 400-page book about one production.
JC: To Gazelle’s point, I think what’s also different is that you look at some of those older mini-series that you were talking about that would’ve been based around one major name in the cast, where as now — if you had said ten years ago, there’s going to be a series with Jessica Lange, and Susan Sarandon, and Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci, and Judy Davis, you would’ve been like, “No, that’s not going to happen. They’re not going to do a TV show.” It helps that they’re limited, because they don’t have to sign on for who knows how many seasons. But Ryan Murphy is able to gather these really formidable actors in a way that is pretty extraordinary. His reputation for doing that seems to be expanding.
MZS: I think there’s something to be said for the kind of work he’s doing in this vein. I mean, I like it. I like it a lot. I just sometimes think that a lot of the problems come down to — it’s sort of ironic in a way — the format. This self-contained anthology, where the unit of measure is the season and not the episode, is very liberating in some ways; but for all the problems it solves, it brings up a new set of problems that then have to be addressed. Instead of having the question of “how do I fit an entire life into two hours or four hours,” the questions becomes, “how do we dole out the narrative of the production of a single motion picture in a period of a few months, in a way that fills up a whole season of television, and doesn’t feel like we’re padding it?” It’s weird, it’s like you’ve taken an enormous leap forward, but there was almost a big leap back at the same time. You’ve solved some of the lingering issues with television, but then you’ve got this whole new set of issues related to television. It’s got to be maddening.