I have this image in my head, crystal clear. It’s John Landraf, president of FX Networks and unofficial Mayor of Television, sleeping comfortably in his bed, an eight-inch pile of paperwork outlining viewership data on his nightstand, with his TV quietly playing his channel in the background, most likely a 1:00 a.m. showing of Captain America. He’s wearing one of those stocking caps people wore in old movies, with pictures of the moon and stars on it, and the little fuzzy ball on the end. He looks very peaceful. Then, suddenly, the phone rings and he jolts awake. (Ringtone: The Terriers theme song.) He looks at the caller ID and sighs.
“SEASON FOUR OF AMERICAN CRIME STORY WILL BE ABOUT MONICA LEWINSKY.”
“But… we haven’t started season two yet.”
“I HAVE FOUR EPISODES WRITTEN. SARAH PAULSON ALREADY AGREED TO APPEAR.’
“… … Fine. I’ll have a press release drawn up in the morning.”
I’m aware that this vision probably is not accurate, and isn’t especially flattering to either party. (Although I am serious about that stocking cap. Let me have that part, at least.) I’m quite that sure Ryan Murphy pitches his new shows and future seasons of current shows in professional, Hollywood meetings, during the daytime, and that John Landgraf is more than happy to hear about all of them, especially after the O.J.-centered first season of American Crime Story lassoed both the public’s attention and more trophies than you can fit in a standard two-car garage. I’ll cop to all that. But even though the rational part of my brain knows all of this… yeah. The image is still crystal clear.
Just look at Murphy’s current dance card. The first season of Feud — his new anthology series about famous feuds throughout history, which starts with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — doesn’t premiere until next week, and he’s already announced that the second season will focus on Charles and Diana and the British royal family. This might strike you as a wee bit ambitious, until you realize that American Crime Story, with just the one season in the books so far, already has its next three seasons mapped out: one on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one on the murder of Gianni Versace, and the aforementioned season about the Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco, which I was not kidding about and must star John Travolta as Bill Clinton — reprising his Primary Colors role — or I will literally spit on the floor in anger.
And as if this all wasn’t enough, Murphy also announced that American Horror Story — his original FX anthology series, the one that has given us scary asylums and scary hotels and an opening credits sequence that featured a stop-motion evil clown that had boot-clad swinging third leg for a penis — will address the 2016 Presidential election next season. Kind of. Not directly, as some originally thought and/or dreamed, with Trump and Clinton possessed by warring red-eyed helldemons or something, but also not not directly. Let’s let Murphy explain.
American Horror Story is going to be about the election that we just went through. And what I’m interested in doing is not just the obvious, single-minded point of view but rather express all sides of that equation. What needs to happen in our country now is for people to listen to each other – we may not always agree with each other and we may be horrified by what the other side is doing but we have to move toward understanding. So that’s one example of what I’m going to do. And then all of the stuff that I’m developing now is going to be about illuminating and highlighting people who don’t have a voice in our culture — people who are ignored by the current administration and who are afraid and feel terrorized that their lives are going to be taken away. I’m interested not just in writing about those people but also in using my financial means to give back to them as well.
It’s a big, interesting step for someone who not that long ago — like, in the grand scheme of the universe — was writing about sexy plastic surgeons having sex. It’s an admirable one, too. And thanks to the credibility The People v. O.J. Simpson brought him, it’s not one you can dismiss by rolling your eyes at. Look at what he and Sarah Paulson did for the public perception of Marcia Clark. Before the series, history remembered her mostly as a tightly-curled prosecutor who got steamrolled by a fancy and slick defense team. After watching it, especially the Marcia-heavy sixth episode, she emerged as a more sympathetic, well-rounded figure who came out of the whole thing unfairly muddied. There were layers there. Layers are good.
(That’s not to say The People v. O.J. Simpson wasn’t also campy and huge as hell at times, by the way. It very much was. But in a good, inviting way, that made an otherwise heavy story more accessible. Please note as examples the fact that Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey appeared to drink liquor out of a red Solo cup during the trial and every single thing John Travolta did as Robert Shapiro. God, I want him to play Bill Clinton in that Lewinsky season. So bad. Travolta as Bill and Sarah Paulson as Hillary. It’s right there in front of our faces.)
To be honest, who can blame him? Murphy’s having what you could call “a moment” right now, one that puts him in pretty rarefied TV company. The list includes: Norman Lear, who made almost every noteworthy comedy from the 1970s; Steven Bochco, who had a decade-plus run that rolled from Hill Street Blues to NYPD Blue, with L.A. Law and Doogie Howser, M.D. in the middle; and Jerry Bruckheimer and Chuck Lorre, who, at one point, were responsible for what felt like 95 percent of the shows on CBS. It would be silly not to take advantage of it.
And he is very much taking advantage of it. I mean, he has so much pull right now that he got one of the primo networks in the Peak TV era to greenlight a big, expensive limited series about two aging actresses who bickered with each other over half a century ago. This is admittedly a somewhat unfair, incomplete description of Feud, which also has layers, but I hope you get the point I’m trying to make. In a time when sexy reimaginings, gritty remakes of beloved classics, and existing intellectual property based on comics are the easiest routes to a series order (shoutout to Riverdale for hitting the trifecta on this), Ryan Murphy is out here like “Fade in. The year is 1962. Susan Sarandon is furious at Jessica Lange.” I kind of love it.
Think about what you would do at your job if you had that much juice. Really, think about. Let’s say you hit a two-year hot streak. The numbers are through the roof. The clients couldn’t be happier. Your boss called you into his office and told you to pitch him any project you thought might work, and you pitched a few big ideas that made some of your coworkers and competitors snicker, but you pulled them off. You’d start going a little mad with power, right? Like, hopefully you’d direct the power into constructive and useful endeavors (see above, re: Murphy’s goal of using his platform and resources to give voice to the marginalized), but it would be an understandable reaction.
Actually, wait. I think the best analogy here is basketball. Do you guys watch the NBA? I do, a lot, sometimes to the detriment of my real job of watching television. Anyway, one of my favorite things in the NBA right now is watching the Warriors’ guard Steph Curry when he starts heating up. He’s a great shooter to begin with, one of the best of all-time. But every now and then he’ll slip into a zone that’s above and beyond that, where it seems like everything is going in. And it’s really fun when it starts happening because he knows it, too, and will start firing up the craziest, most ill-advised shots you can imagine, just to see how far the wave will take him. Double covered? No problem. Thirty-five feet away with 18 seconds left on the shot clock? Sure. Off-balance with a hand in his face and his mouthguard hanging out against his cheek? Absolutely. He’ll keep bombing away until he cools off.
What I’m saying here, I guess, is this: Shoot your shot, Ryan Murphy.