The State of Ryan Murphy: Is Netflix’s $300 Million Man Paying Off?
Why have all of the prolific producer’s streaming shows been so bad?
Three years ago, Netflix and Shonda Rhimes signed a deal that would change the TV game as we know it. When Netflix paid Rhimes at least $150 million—but probably more—for a five-year overall deal, stealing her away from ABC, it kicked off an avalanche of rich deals for other prolific producers, including her fellow ABC stalwart Kenya Barris and Fox darling Ryan Murphy.
Ryan Murphy’s Netflix deal, signed in 2018, was the richest of them all at the time—a $300 million payday that has given us The Politician, Hollywood, and now the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel Ratched. (Other producers, including Greg Berlanti, have since signed for bigger numbers.)
But Murphy’s output so far has likely not brought the results Netflix had hoped for; all three of his streaming shows have been duds at best and abject failures at worst. (In an ironic twist, the Murphy-produced documentaries Circus of Books and A Secret Love, both of which debuted on Netflix within the last year, are both better than any of the scripted series produced under the deal.)
And Ratched, despite some delightful performances, is the most incoherent and embarrassing of them all—another sign that as impressive as these deals are, they might not be doing viewers many favors.
It makes sense that a streaming giant would fork over a staggering pile of cash to a creator like Murphy; ever since his Fox sensation Glee and its massive Twitter following made him a household name, he’s become one of TV’s buzziest and most prolific auteurs. What better golden goose for a corporate giant known for pumping out hits at a feverish pace than the guy who rarely has fewer than three shows running at once?
Ratched is typical of Murphy’s more gonzo swings in that it works best if you enjoy the surface-level spectacle—Sharon Stone and a monkey in matching dresses! Ice-pick lobotomies! Illicit handjobs!—and ignore the rest. Seasoned American Horror Story fans know perhaps better than anyone that even when the writing on a Ryan Murphy show has gone off the rails, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way.
To begrudge Murphy one lavish misfire would be unfair—but the Netflix shows that preceded Ratched have not been much better. The Politician is a confused, remarkably unfunny mess that even Gwyneth Paltrow’s breezy performance cannot goop to any sort of higher state. And Hollywood, which tries (and in large part fails) to rewrite history to exalt those who were never allowed to participate in Old Hollywood’s glory, manages to squander all the fun of a feather-clad Patti LuPone with its mawkish tone.
Murphy is not the only producer who has floundered under the weight of his massive streaming deal. Kenya Barris’ #blackAF, which premiered earlier this year, failed to move past the themes already tackled in his ABC series, black-ish, and its caustic characters didn’t quite connect with most critics—although it did get renewed for a second season.
Shonda Rhimes’ first Netflix series, Bridgerton, wrapped filming in February and is expected to debut this year—perhaps she can break the streak. But more concerning for Netflix than the individual quality of the shows its flashy creators have produced so far is their failure to make much of a splash. Neither The Politician nor Hollywood managed to generate much sustained interest or excitement, and Ratched seems unlikely to do much better.
The problem with all of these series is that it’s unclear why they exist. With each passing series Murphy produces under his deal, it becomes harder to see what he and his collaborators are trying to say—even as each show visibly strains to say... something.
The Politician, from Murphy and frequent collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, stabs at themes of young ambition and the corrupting power of alienation in a faint echo of Glee. But the show’s simultaneous reliance on farce and seemingly unconditional sympathy for its central character, Ben Platt’s Payton Hobart, kneecap its ability to explore those ideas with any depth or nuance. Two seasons in, The Politician doesn’t seem to have anything unique or surprising to say; it’s just a lavish, fast-talking comedy that happens to star a canny Gwyneth Paltrow.
Murphy’s Fox collaborators produced The Politician, making Hollywood his real debut as a Netflix producer. But that series, too, tried to have its cake and eat it, too. The alt-history attempts to pierce the legend of Old Hollywood’s greatness but, in the end, winds up buying in—putting the industry’s historic bigotry on display before waving all the problems away with a magic wand and hailing representation in entertainment as the ultimate validating achievement for oppressed communities. The characters of Pose, a far superior Murphy-produced series that explores how trans people have been ignored and disenfranchised even as mainstream culture elevates a select few people and mines their community for hot new “trends,” would get a good laugh out of that notion.
But Ratched, created by Evan Romansky and developed by Murphy, is the most confused, and confusing, of all. Despite Sarah Paulson’s versatility and emotional dexterity as an actress, the longtime Murphy muse is not playing a character so much as a moving plot device.
Much like the show that contains her, Mildred Ratched is as entertaining a spectacle as they come. Who wouldn’t want to gawk at a chilling authoritarian with a thirst for very bizarre sexual roleplay? But her thin and inconsistent characterization makes it impossible to really engage with her. As Ratched begins, we’re meant to understand its central character as a calculating master manipulator—a cruel person somewhat in line with the original character. But over time, Mildred Ratched begins to take the form of a traumatized martyr. (And in a troubling twist, part of the character’s detached cruelty is framed as the result of being a closeted lesbian.)
Complex characters are obviously necessary for compelling drama—but Mildred Ratched’s many facets never coalesce to form one legible character. The series vaguely waves at a traumatic past as an explanation for the character’s cruelty without ever seriously considering how her trauma informs the way she sees and interacts with the world. It’s disappointing and also in keeping with the show’s broader failing to understand or engage with mental illness in any meaningful way.
And in an even more vexing turn, the series does next to nothing with Nurse Ratched’s symbolic power as a looming authoritarian from the original text and film adaptation. Instead, Ratched veers further away from the original characterization with each episode, making it nearly impossible to imagine how future seasons might bring her closer to that ultimate fate.
Ryan Murphy is at his best when he finds the sweet spot between farce and sincerity, using camp as a vehicle to explore the emotions and often warped psychology that can underpin dysfunctional communities and family units. But Murphy’s style has always been weaker when he tries to tackle institutions like the entertainment industry or our political system or mental healthcare; too often, he vacillates between advocating against them and re-imagining them as kinder, more naively optimistic enterprises. (It’s notable that The People v. O.J. Simpson, which Murphy in part directed but did not write, is the only one of his shows that disproves this rule.)
In any case, none of Murphy’s Netflix projects have hit that mark because they all make the same mistake: placing their sincerity in all the wrong places while refusing to engage with the deeper themes at play where it would actually count.
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of these series is how homogenous their visuals have become. The production design on The Politician, Hollywood, and Ratched is undeniably gorgeous, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Murphy’s flair for over-the-top scenery and costume. But they also all begin to look the same—a stark and disappointing departure from Murphy’s Fox shows, which all devise their own visual language to drive home their stories. The fact that all three Netflix series focus on exceptional, aberrant people only underscores the irony of their visual sameness.
American Horror Story, an anthology series that invests far more in its aesthetics and spectacle, is perhaps the best showcase for Murphy’s visual flexibility. Each season looks different from the next: Murder House turned a Tudor mansion into a sumptuous, shadowy lair for the ghosts that haunted the Harmon family; Asylum was a gothic and grimy sanatorium; Coven’s witchy boarding school was impossibly glamorous, highlighting the corruption of its leadership, and so on. With each season, fresh color palettes, lighting and costume choices further the storytelling.
So why do The Politician, Hollywood, and Ratched all bathe in the same shades of Technicolor teal, saturated mustard and rosy, peachy pink? Why does the jewel-toned maximalism of an heiress’ mansion in Ratched feel so closely reminiscent of some of the cluttered rich-people manses of The Politician? Ratched and Hollywood take place only a year apart, both in California—so perhaps it was inevitable that Ratched would look similar to its predecessor, albeit doused with a splash of oceanside Northern California noir.
But then again, why make the mental hospital at its center a richly appointed converted day-spa? Maybe Murphy wanted to avoid creating too much overlap with AHS: Asylum—a season from which Ratched already borrows a few motifs and themes, including fixations on death-as-mercy and a strange fascination with severed limbs. A charitable viewer might argue that Ratched’s luxurious facility is meant to serve as a parallel to the way many of its staff members pose as people they are not—but the show’s apparent disinterest in exploring its characters’ depths makes that a tenuous notion at best.
Regardless of the reason, the result remains the same: All three of Murphy’s Netflix series blur together visually in a way that, more than anything, makes them feel less imaginative and more mass-produced. And their half-baked stories do little to dispel that feeling.
Today’s streaming economy is a fast-growing snowball. As an ever-ballooning number of platforms compete for viewers’ eyeballs, they’re cobbling together more and more content at an increasingly rapid churn. But “more,” as the cliche goes, does not necessarily mean “better.” Creators like Ryan Murphy need more time and care to fully flesh out their themes—not, necessarily, more money. And although Netflix’s value proposition to artists has long been to fork over the funds and then step out of the way, we’re seeing more and more that even our most popular artists could always use a kind but firm editor. Otherwise all we’re left with are great gowns. Beautiful gowns.