Twenty minutes into his Netflix adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom, it becomes clear what kind of movie Ryan Murphy thinks he has made. Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and fellow star and very gay friend Barry Glickman (James Corden) are on the bus to Indiana, where they plan to raise hell in defense of a lesbian teen denied the right to take her girlfriend to the prom — a publicity stunt designed to repair their damaged reputations. No sooner do we learn this than Barry says, sincerely, that he has always dreamed of showing up his childhood bullies by doing “something important.” Dee Dee curls up next to him and coos, “That’s exactly what we are doing — something important.”
The original musical had a straightforward premise, one as old as The Music Man: Big-city outsiders roll into town with a “helpful” scheme meant to benefit themselves, only to learn how to be selfless. Under Murphy’s direction, however, a satire of celebrity activism becomes a love letter to showbiz — in which doing good for the publicity can be good in itself.
The Prom caps off what feels like phase one of Murphy’s big deal with Netflix, a saga that began three years ago, in early 2018, when the streaming service paid an estimated $300 million to hire Murphy away from 21st Century Fox. The nine shows he’d produced at FX over 15 years, including Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, had always been maximal, attention-grabbing, full of cruelty or gore. Run through with a strain of righteousness, they focused on underdog characters (theater geeks, gay teens, brunettes) boxing out their own space in the world. The shows could be angry about injustices of class, race, gender, sexuality, and, often, beauty. They could also be scattershot, favoring big swings in tone over consistency. More often than not, they had you by the throat.
Murphy’s move to Netflix marked a certain anointment by the industry — at the time, it was called the biggest deal for a TV creator in history — and Murphy talked about it as if he had been invited to sit with the homecoming court at the cafeteria. “My whole life has been in search of that brass ring, and now somebody actually thinks I’m worthy as opposed to being an aberration?” Murphy told Time in a 2019 profile. But with millions in hand and more power than ever, the work Murphy has made at Netflix so far has been curiously tedious. In a review of his spring 2020 miniseries Hollywood, this magazine called it “so narrow-minded that its sentimentality curls all the way back around to cynicism.” When Ratched premiered in the fall, the Ringer’s headline was simply “Another Ryan Murphy Netflix Show, Another Miss.” Murphy has always had an eye for clever casting — reviving the career of an older actress, spinning out a career for one of his favorite regular players. Now, he has seemingly grown enamored with the possibility of casting whichever stars he pleases and allergic to challenging them with unflattering material. His sympathies, always conflicted between the world’s brown-haired losers and its glamorous blonde winners, have tipped slightly but conclusively toward the side of the winners.
In 2018, at the dawn of his Netflix deal, Murphy told The New Yorker that he would classify his work as “baroque.” Perhaps the best description of his Netflix work, then, would be “rococo”: the same exaggerated, filigreed style without much heft or substance. The work of nobility celebrating itself.
Murphy is a gay man from Indiana who, by way of a career as a reporter in Miami, made it to L.A. and fought his way up: This is both true and self-mythology. His first show, Popular, premiered on the WB in 1999, just before he turned 34. This now-cult series, a study of the warring haves and have-nots of high school, barreled straight into the self-serious teen dramas, like Dawson’s Creek, of the era. In one episode, the primary female characters all get their period at the same time while locked in a bathroom. In another, the megalomaniac cheerleader Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman) dyes her hair brown as part of a social experiment and suddenly starts talking like Barbra Streisand. It’s a universe where reputation matters more than logic, written less for teens than for snarky 30-something gays still nursing wounds from adolescence. In Popular’s fun-house-mirror version of high school, you can see the first draft of many long-term Murphy themes: a fixation on social hierarchy, a love of statement costumes, a willingness to break with reality for the sake of a joke. According to Murphy, it did not go over well at the WB, where he says he often received network notes to make the tone of the show “less gay.”
The cheerleaders of Popular, especially Mary Cherry, began a genealogy of Murphy characters who either idolize, or actually are, Gwyneth Paltrow—the foils for a menagerie of misfits who are obsessed with them. Murphy’s first FX series, Nip/Tuck, in 2003, featured plastic-surgeon protagonists who started their consultations with the prompt: “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” The show — which was also the start of a long collaboration with FX head John Landgraf — buried a razor of unfulfillment in a cake of nudity, sex, and lurid plotlines, which dealt with sex-reassignment surgery in ways alternately sensitive and exploitative. In Glee, Murphy’s 2009 breakout with co-conspirators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, he mixed his obsession with cliques with a dash of optimism, allowing the viewer to hope that the tokenized outsiders of an upstart high-school show choir could succeed. The show lost steam in later seasons, weighed down by its convoluted plotting, but the hook was enough to sell musical remixes, a reality-show spinoff, and even concert tours.
Glee also turned Murphy into one of the most powerful showrunners in Hollywood. He churned out FX series like the anthology show American Horror Story, as well as network experiments like Scream Queens (which didn’t quite hit) and 9-1-1 (which did) and, eventually, the prestige anthology series that would give him his biggest critical success, American Crime Story. Always prickly about both criticism and praise, Murphy told The New Yorker that the first installment of that series, The People v. O. J. Simpson, was “an experiment in constraint, and that was the side of me that critics love the most — when it’s the side of me that I love the least.”
Murphy has long had a sense of the chutes and ladders of power: who’s climbing up, and who’s pushing everyone else down. Now that he’s on top at Netflix, he seems to have grown more fond of the whole board game. In his 2019 Time profile, Murphy notes that “everything I’m working on is about one idea — taking marginalized characters and putting them in the leading story.” He brags about how he has every A-lister’s phone number — except for Meryl Streep’s. (“There’s everybody, and then there’s Meryl.”) Those have always been Murphy’s two conflicting motivations, which he’s channeled through his characters all the way back to Popular: identification with the underdog and obsession with the top dog.
That still comes through in his first show to launch at Netflix, The Politician, which can’t seem to decide whether Ben Platt’s high-school-schemer character is an ambitious sociopath or a sympathetic misfit. Awash in Wes Anderson–like touches and brief musical interludes, the show, as New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz put it, is “so aggressively kitschy and cutesy that [any] sincerity comes across as calculated.” Hollywood starts out as a 1940s-industry satire (aspiring actor turns tricks to get work) and ends up as a treacly inspirational tale (actor and friends make the movie they want, win Oscars, solve racism). Ratched, starring longtime Murphy staple Sarah Paulson as the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest villain, had the potential to be a sibling to American Horror Story. But it overexplains itself, centering too closely on Nurse Ratched’s trauma — seemingly so that we wouldn’t hate one of the most hated authority figures in cinema.
That impulse in Ratched is revealing: Murphy might act as a provocateur, but he loves his characters — often, infuriatingly, the worst ones — and he wants the audience to love them too. On shows like the ballroom drama Pose, based on a pilot by Steven Canals and one of Murphy’s last FX projects before his Netflix deal, that softness could work in his favor. The story maintains its stakes, aware of the precariousness of its characters’ joy in the face of transphobic violence and the AIDS epidemic. In other cases, however, Murphy’s decisions to pull back the curtain and explain everyone to the audience dull conflict. In Hollywood, one character, a talent agent, is painted as a sexual predator; by the end of the series, that same character is offering his former client a juicy part in a film about a gay love story in what feels like a thin act of redemption.
While Murphy’s star casting goes back to Glee and American Horror Story, on Netflix it has gone into overdrive. See the casting of Cynthia Nixon in Ratched or Bette Midler in The Politician: Both play characters that wink at their own personae (a powerful queer woman, a comedic schemer) and never go deeper than that. Murphy’s desire to center A-listers is made most literal in The Prom. Unlike its Broadway iteration, which humbled and humiliated its stuck-up actor characters, Murphy’s version celebrates the magic of celebrity.
For someone as powerful as he is in Hollywood, Murphy is remarkably open about how much he cares about reviews and awards potential. (In that 2018 New Yorker profile, writer Emily Nussbaum recounts how Murphy sent her the Pose pilot then peppered her with text messages asking her to rank it on a scale of one to ten.) The humor and tension of so many of Murphy’s earlier series came from an awareness of the world’s unfairness and the absurdity of in-group politics. Resentment was the grist for his content mill. In his Netflix work, Murphy has created fantasies of acceptance — noble, perhaps, but quickly and cheaply earned. When resentment does appear, it flows outward and down, toward the haters, the critics, or the townspeople of Indiana.
There’s a personal story at stake in The Prom for Murphy. He has told journalists that his father beat him for his sexuality and that he was unable to bring the date he would have wanted to his own Indiana prom. The film version of the musical adds a redemption arc for James Corden’s Barry, in which the character reconciles with his estranged mother, though his estranged father isn’t quite ready. It cannot help but read like Murphy giving himself his own happy ending. (Murphy has said that he did reconcile with his father before he died but never got over the memory of his father’s antipathy toward him.) “When you’re an artist, sometimes you’re repeating a narrative that you, yourself, are trying to figure out,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview about the film. “A lot of it, it’s my childhood. The thing that I wanted.” The Prom might work as an exercise in wish fulfillment. But it also offers a tidy summary of Murphy’s output at Netflix so far: big, expensive, saccharine.
It’s possible the problem is Netflix, not Murphy. In order to lure big names, the streaming service gives producers both cash and independence; reporting on Murphy’s deal, The Hollywood Reporter noted that “Fox couldn’t match the creative latitude being offered by Netflix,” including the power to green-light many of his own projects. That kind of freedom can enable showrunners’ more indulgent tendencies. We can see that with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris’s series #BlackAF, an ego trip in which Barris plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, griping. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episodes have gone gimmicky. The rare person to get the assignment is Shonda Rhimes, who signed her Netflix deal just before Murphy. The first series she produced for the streamer is Bridgerton, an addictive period drama that, unlike other creators’ self-aggrandizing work, doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be more than exactly what it says on the tin.
Murphy, as usual, has an armada of other projects still in the works. For Netflix alone, he has promised a series starring Ewan McGregor as the 1970s designer Halston, a potential miniseries based on the musical A Chorus Line, and a Jeffrey Dahmer series, among other ideas he has teased in interviews. He has already used his position at Netflix to produce documentaries, A Secret Love and Circus of Books, both nuanced stories about lesser-known queer corners of the world. Meanwhile, American Crime Story continues back at FX with the potentially thrilling prospect of Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein playing Monica Lewinsky in the next season.
At this point, though, the most exciting part of a Ryan Murphy project tends to be the announcement, a list of stars hooked on to a potentially grabby idea. What Murphy has less reliably delivered is the inversions that used to keep his stories interesting — the possibility that marginalized characters might overthrow higher-status ones, or that good taste might fly out the window for the sake of a joke about something real. Murphy’s Netflix worlds feel like window dressing, jewel-toned, inert, and wildly expensive. He has too much at stake to risk upsetting the tableau.