How the 'American Crime Story' Can Redeem Ryan Murphy's Career
Does Murphy's and Brad Falchuk's new fact-driven crime drama demand abandonment of their characteristically campy approaches?
At this point, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the infamous and venerable directing, screenwriting, and executive producing duo, have made a clear mark on the current landscape of American television. While the shows they’ve co-created and produced together — Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens — differ in subject matter and overall appeal, there is a common thread among them, the Murphian/Falchukian trademark: a penchant for the over-the-top. As their most recent limited series American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson gears up for its February 2nd FX premiere, the satisfying excess of their previous efforts is called into question: Will the duo have to alter their approach to be conducive to a fact-driven crime drama?
Thus far in their careers, Murphy and Falchuk have laid claim to campy, compelling environments in their TV shows, which they create by adding excess everywhere. If we start out by looking at Glee, for example, Murphy’s and Falchuk’s affinity for the semi-ridiculous set in an archetypal high school storyline hits you square in the face. Aesthetically, the show is a smattering of bright colors and pretty faces, accompanied by stereotypical character outlines - the ditzy cheerleaders, the wrathful, scheming cheerleading coach/principal, the innocent goodie good who loves the Glee club, the hot football player who is surprisingly sensitive. The show follows the characters through their high school lives as they deal with clichéd coming-of-age challenges like pregnancy, rivalry, and unrequited love all the while randomly breaking out into over-produced, crisp covers of well-known songs.
The duo’s next endeavor was the American Horror Story franchise, which just concluded its fifth season at Hotel Cortez. Horror may seem like a substantial deviation from a delightful high school drama. But horror can often lend itself to absurdity, and when absurdity calls, Murphy and Falchuk answer. This tendency was most clearly displayed, and consequently exhausted, in the most recent season of American Horror Story, in which the two resorted to such disgusting and explicit spectacles that the show effectively jumped the shark. There were moments of the fifth season during which I found myself in disbelief of what I was watching or that this material was allowed to be shown on TV.
As American Horror Story became increasingly grotesque, Murphy and Falchuk turned to full-on horror parody for Scream Queens, a hilarious, gag-filled show about a series of murders that take place in a sorority house. Over-the-top? Definitely. But the overarching satirical themes and the hilariously spot-on commentary on white culture establish a high level of absurdity that allows Murphy and Falchuk to seamlessly continue forward with their approaches. While American Horror Story was busying viewers with storylines of heroin addicts sewing themselves together or — I’m so sorry to revisit this image — the spinning metal drill penis contraption, Scream Queens was successfully converting the gruesome into the hilarious. Following a season of AHS that went way too far, it seemed Murphy’s and Falchuk’s horror gambit had found its more appropriate home in Scream Queens.
Now, however, Murphy and Falchuk are barking up a whole different tree. With American Crime Story set to premiere next week on FX, you might have to clear your slate of Murphy and Falchuk notions to prepare for the new limited series. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer , and other big names, the series will explore the true events behind the outrageous O.J. Simpson murder trial in the ‘90s.
There’s one word in that last sentence that should make you do a double take: “true.” ACS marks the first time the two will take on a fact-driven story, even if it deals with one of the most publicized events in the recent history of the American judicial system. On the one hand, the extent to which the trial was sensationalized and the accompanying public outcry create an appropriate opportunity for Murphy’s and Falchuk’s attention-grabbing stunts. However, the show promises to reveal unknown details about the case, which probably means that it will edge closer to a depiction rooted in cold-hard facts than one rooted in scandal and major hype.
No matter what Murphy and Falchuk do, their efforts always acknowledge sensationalism in pop-culture. The decision to cast Lady Gaga in the last season of American Horror Story is a perfect example, or the fact that Nip/Tuck is all about the ever-topical plastic surgery hype. With American Crime Story, it appears that the duo’s ultimate challenge will be striking a neat balance between relaying the true events of the O.J. Simpson case while still remaining true to their sensationalist approaches.