Thursday, May 24, 2012

This quote tells you everything you need to know about Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy and the cast of Glee. Photo courtesy of

In a fascinating interview with Vulture, Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy responded to his very vocal critics and discussed the burden of acting as a showrunner for three series at the same time (his comedy The New Normal just got picked up by NBC). The whole thing is worth a read, but there is one remark in particular that not only stands out, but that offers an explanation of how Glee went from a snarky-yet-heartfelt story about a high school glee club to a self-proclaimed Important Show About Important Issues.
The seminal childhood TV viewing experience for me was the episode of All in the Family where Edith almost got raped. Also on Maude, when Bea Arthur made the decision to have an abortion. I remember watching those shows and talking to my parents about them, and it was a way for my parents to talk about those things with me and feel comfortable doing it. So it really is something I’ve always loved since I was a kid, that form.
Murphy's self-aggrandizement aside (Glee's sledgehammer approach to "issue" television is worlds removed from the subtlety of Maude or All In The Family), this quote sums up the ongoing problems with Glee and dashes any hopes I had that The New Normal might stay away from the endless preachiness that has become a Murphy trademark.

Because this comment isn't a response to a question about portraying social issues on television or Glee's recent, much-maligned domestic violence episode. The interviewer had merely asked Murphy why he had decided to try his hand at a half-hour comedy. His immediate jump to a discussion of Big Social Issues not only glosses over the fact that a sitcom is a very different beast from an hourlong drama or dramedy, but demonstrates his preoccupation with making TV shows that "matter."

The thing that Murphy misses here - the thing that, really, he's always been missing - is that you can't force a big social issues message into a show. People don't just remember Edith Bunker's near-rape and Maude's abortion because the events in and of themselves were shocking, although that's certainly a factor. They stick with viewers because the stories aren't preachy, because the effects of the events were shown for more than a nanosecond and, most importantly, because both shows worked as TV shows. Both All In The Family and Maude built consistent, funny worlds and characters first, and only brought in the social issue plots later, when they made sense in terms of the characters' arcs. Glee, on the other hand, simply builds episodes around whatever "important theme" Murphy wants to talk about that week, which results in inconsistent characterization and outlandish plot devices.

For a useful comparison, you can look at Glee's "suicidal Karofsky" plot side-by-side with Community's "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons." Both deal with the same theme - suicide, in case you forgot - but, while the former's treatment of the topic is reliant on character inconsistencies and emotional manipulation, the latter uses the topic to deepen characterizations, explore relationships and develop ongoing plotlines. (It's also really, really funny, which helps keep the storyline from appearing overly preachy and dour. As evidence, check out the video below, which is one of my favorite Community moments ever.)

In simpler terms: Glee's story is about Suicide, full stop. Community's is about a character (Neil), his personal struggles, and the study group's relationships with him and with one another. The first story is compelling largely because of the issue being discussed, while the second  draws on the show's existing strengths, and ultimately makes much more of an impact.

It's impossible to make a TV show important without first making it a good TV show. You can cram all the hot-button issues and moral uprightness that you want into a given episode, but the whole thing starts to fall apart unless you've built a sturdy underlying structure - of characters, of situations, of humor - that the issues can rest on. It's becoming increasingly clear that Murphy has jettisoned any interest in structural integrity in favor of making statements about big, important topics. Ironically enough, this narrow-minded focus has taken away his shows' potential to actually make such a statement compelling.

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