The Ryan Murphy Effect, or, Why You Can't Turn Away

If you followed the advice of Dustin over at Pajiba, you would have never tuned in to American Horror Story. This new horror/melodrama/camp series from the creators of Glee (though quite clearly mostly from Ryan Murphy) is teetering between genuinely suspenseful and so bad it's good. I believe I even left a snarky little comment on Dustin's review that went like this:

It's Ryan Murphy doing horror. What did you expect beyond camp and regurgitated cliches? That's what he does. It's why his fans love him for Popular and hate him for Glee season 2.

An exaggeration of the facts, yes, but par for the course on a site with its own zombie apocalypse contingency plan and a many-tentacled deity.

All of Ryan Murphy's TV series have taken a few weeks to hook the audience. Strange and stupid things happen right off the bat that stick with you for better or worse.

Popular's entire conceit was the most popular girl in the school being forced to move in with the least popular girl because the former's father and the latter's mother fell in love. There was also an array of high school cliche characters (and bizarre caricatures) amped up so high that it felt like the show would never come together; it did in strange and endearing ways.

Nip/Tuck on its face was absurd, seeing two handsome sex-addicted plastic surgeons cater to an ever-expanding mentally unstable clientele and screwing anything that moved. By the time Rosie O'Donnell showed up to schtup the lead doctor and get lipo suction on her arms, her story arc seemed normal by comparison.

Glee was just as strange. Remember the audition montage that boiled down to none of these students had any musical talent whatsoever but wound up being a glee club anyway?

American Horror Story is no exception. If you read any reviews based off of the first episode, the big complaint was not understanding what was going on. The characters were over the top, the action gratuitous, and the cliches slathered on so heavy that a ten year old getting into slashers for the first time would say "too much." And yet, people kept watching. Has the story cleared up at all? Nope. It's more confusing than it was in the first week. Message boards are filling with random theories about which characters aren't alive, who is the actual father of the child, and how the ghosts became so efficient at cleaning up gory crime scenes.

The key factor linking all of these shows together is the twisted mind of Ryan Murphy. This is a man who has made a career out of building original stories out of well-worn cliches. He starts with the broad strokes and then begins to tear expectations apart. The popular cheerleader has crippling self-doubt and may be afraid of becoming too deep for her friends. The raving lunatic threatening to sue for plastic surgery scarring she caused by not following aftercare procedures only wants love, not money. The kleptomaniac neighbor only wants...shiny objects that can fit in her purse. We're not far enough into American Horror Story to see that character change.

But the point still stands. Ryan Murphy uses these cliches and character types to create an instant familiarity with the material. He then starts to twist and subvert them into unrecognizable forms that leave people wanting more. It is the constant flux of the material--a refusal to meet expectations--that creates the interest in these shows. He does enough oddball things in the first few episodes to get you hooked, then manipulates the material into something that stands out on his own.

For example, as absurd as the conclusion to The Carver story on Nip/Tuck was (transsexual incestuous siblings working in the very office all the disfigured victims came from), it got people talking. What started as a simple procedural mystery with a twist--the permanently scarred smiles created with surgeon-accuracy into the cheeks--became a twisted journey into psychosis and narcissism. It became social commentary on a television community that was growing increasingly obsessed with real plastic surgery specials and criticism of the beats of the one hour procedurals that still haunt our television sets. Murphy's story arc didn't necessarily do anything new with the expectations of such an adventure. He simply manipulated the story and your expectations to bring new interest to tired old cliches and character types.

If you don't understand why you can't turn away from American Horror Story, just blame Ryan Murphy. You are not the first victim of the Ryan Murphy effect and you'll hardly be the last. He wraps a warm blanket of familiarity around you and then throws you out into the cold to fend for yourself. He'll extend an arm only to rip it away before you can reach it. Yet you adjust to the cold, reposition the blanket, and accept that the situation will only get weirder before you have any sense of resolution.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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