There really is precious little hallmark for a Ryan Murphy show. Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, The New Normal, Scream Queens, American Crime Story, Feud—just when you might get a sense of a common thread linking these shows, and just when you suspect he might be ready to lay back and enjoy his success, another show comes along to upset the math. And yet somehow, still, they are all inescapably Ryan Murphy shows. Through them all, an auteur streak that can’t be denied; a storyteller’s stamp that doesn’t need to conform to format or genre.
“My life really changed around 10 years ago,” Murphy says now, reflecting on this golden run. “When I got my overall deal at Fox, I got amazing bosses in John Landgraf and Dana Walden and Peter Rice. For the first time ever, they said, ‘Don’t change who you are, be who you are. And write something you want to watch.’ That thing was Glee, and it took off from there.”
With these supportive partners, Murphy created shows that revitalized the Fox slate, transformed FX into the prestige rival it was always intended to be, and revived the long-dormant anthology format. But at the heart of this disruption is an outsider who sought simply to be heard. “I started off in this business in 1998, and I didn’t fit in,” Murphy recalls. “There was no place for me, and I always felt like an oddball. Nobody really understood my work, or what I wanted to do in my references.”
There is no precedent for a show like American Crime Story: The People V O. J. Simpson, and none for Feud: Bette And Joan. When both were announced, the expectation was that they might be mercenary attempts to cash in on some famous controversy, at the expense of the respective victims of each story. It wasn’t that Murphy hadn’t proved himself a deft hand at creating compelling television; rather, it was hard to see any other approach to these subjects.
And yet, as O. J. examined the racial tensions of the ’90s, and as Bette And Joan documented the struggles for mature actresses in the ’60s, Murphy’s interest in both subjects became clear. Through them, he held a mirror to the world of today, demanding conversation about whether anything material had changed.
“I feel every day that everything I create—everything I do—I want it to be a risk,” Murphy says. “I think when you take the big swings—and I’ve done plenty of big swings that I was told were never going to work—those are always the things that break through.”
His priority now is to offer a voice to the voiceless. “I keep trying to change the industry into the world I want it to look like,” he says. “I guess it’s just my way of repaying my karmic luck, because it could have gone really badly for me. When I talk to young people, I always tell them the biggest lesson I learned was that you shouldn’t care about the outcome. If it fails, it fails. Every failure will groom you for your next big reward. I lean into fear, because I feel like that excites me as an artist.”