The horrifying rise of Ryan Murphy, the most divisive man in TV

Kim Kardashian in the latest series of American Horror Story
Kim Kardashian in the latest series of American Horror Story - Alamy

The latest season of American Horror Story has a few surprises up its spooky sleeves. One unexpected development is that AHS: Delicate features Kim Kardashian in a straight dramatic part (the series premiered in the US last week and will come to Disney+ in the UK at an as-yet-unspecified date). Scarier yet, Kardashian is decent in the role. The Hollywood Reporter claims she outshines co-star Emma Roberts; USA Today praises her for delivering on the show’s “high-camp potential”.

Kardashian plays the PA to Roberts’s high-flying Hollywood star, Anna Victoria Alcott. On the surface, Anna has the world at her feet: her latest film is acclaimed, she is in a loving relationship with her art dealer husband (Matt Czuchry). Behind the scenes, however, all is not well. After several unsuccessful rounds of IVF, Anna is desperate to become pregnant. In her anxiety, she has started to experience waking visions related to her fertility struggles. She is living the Hollywood dream yet her life is a nightmare.

Anna’s angsty experiences could be a metaphor for the recent travails of American Horror Story and its creator, TV mega-producer Ryan Murphy. On the surface, all is well: exactly a year ago, Murphy had one of the biggest successes of his career when his true-crime smash Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story became the third most-watched Netflix drama of all time.

He is working on a second series of Monster for Netflix, this time telling the story of the Menendez Brothers, who killed their wealthy parents in Beverley Hills in 1996. Meanwhile, Disney is so keen to lure him back from the streamer, with whom he signed a $300 million production deal, that it is preparing to break the bank – at a time when it is implementing savage budget cuts across every aspect of its operations

Yet, as with Delicate, the picture is very different when you peel back the layers. Murphy has always been controversial: his breakout hit, surgical comedy-horror Nip/Tuck, touched on incest, organ harvesting and child abuse.

However, more and more criticisms have come his way in the past several years – and especially the past several months. And for all the success of Dahmer, and despite protestations to the contrary, it is by no means clear that Netflix will be sorry to see the back of him.

That show arrived four years into a Netflix deal that, up to then, had produced only flops in the appalling Politician, Hollywood and The Prom. By contrast, Netflix’s other high-profile outsider hire, Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes, delivered an instant sensation in Bridgerton.

Dahmer was divisive, too. Subscribers flocked to it. Yet reviewers felt the grisly depiction of Jeffrey Dahmer’s murders verged on voyeurism. “No real justification for its existence,” said The New Yorker. “It turns Dahmer into a hideously immortal thing: an icon,” decried Vanity Fair.

Ryan Murphy in 2016
Ryan Murphy in 2016 - Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

It wasn’t just journalists who were appalled. The families of several of Dahmer’s victims criticised Murphy. Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, who Dahmer murdered at age 19, said Netflix was “profiting” from a tragic story.

Murphy said he had tried to contact the families only to blanked. “It’s something that we researched for a very long time,” he said. “And we, over the course of the three, three and a half years when we were really writing it, working on it, we reached out to 20 — around 20 of the victims’ families and friends trying to get input, trying to talk to people and not a single person responded to us in that process.”

Yet it’s only this summer – particularly since the beginning of the Hollywood writers’ strike – that the backlash against Murphy has achieved a critical mass.

He was accused of breaking the strike by keeping three productions going while the rest of the industry shut down. Murphy is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America – but is said to have continued overseeing American Horror Story and two other shows, American Sports Story (chronicling the downfall of American football player Aaron Hernandez) and American Horror Stories (an anthology spinoff of AHS), in his capacity as director and producer.

David Schwimmer and John Travolta in Ryan Murphy's series American Crime Story
David Schwimmer and John Travolta in Ryan Murphy's series American Crime Story - AP

The cover was blown by none other than Kim Kardashian, who seemed not to have noticed the writers picketing the set. She tweeted she was taking a break from filming and asked her followers if anything was up? Plenty, said the strikers: for instance, there was that picket line she’d just crossed.

Murphy was accused of threatening his cast and crew by WGA “strike captain” Warren Leight, who said those working with the producer were told they would be “blackballed in Murphy-land” if they didn’t turn up for work. Murphy denied this, and his lawyers threatened to sue the WGA. Leight deleted and retracted the tweet, saying the accusations were “unsubstantiated” and “completely false and inaccurate”.

The controversies weren’t over. The debut of Delicate last week was overshadowed by the claim of actress Angelica Ross, who appeared in Murphy’s Pose and earlier seasons of AHS, that Emma Roberts had made a transphobic comment on the set of American Horror Story: 1984. She later tweeted that Roberts had called her to apologise for behaviour that was “not that of an ally”.

However, if Roberts was forgiven, Ross did not spare Murphy. In another tweet over the weekend, she accused the producer of not doing enough to combat racism on his sets. She claims a crew member on the AHS set wore a series of “racist” T-shirts with slogans such as “Build that Wall” and “I Don’t Kneel” (a dig at Black Lives Matters and the ritual of taking the knee). Ross says she refused to leave a production van until the situation was resolved – and accuses Murphy of blaming her.

“Ryan Murphy calls me directly…” He starts off not, “Are you OK?” Not, “What’s going on?” He starts: ‘“What’s your f---ing problem?! Are you serious?!” He goes, “You think that I would f---ing silence you after all I’ve done, and I’ve been an advocate and done nothing but uplift trans black women?’”

This was a reference to Pose, which told the story of the gay and trans “Voguing” scene in Eighties New York. Ross continued: “This is not my first time at the rodeo of dealing with that energy of white people who think that they are doing good but won’t check their own selves when someone Black or of the people they’re trying to help is telling them, ‘You have a blind spot.” (Speaking to the Hollywood reporter, Murphy’s co-producer Tanase Popa disputed Ross’s version of events: “[Murphy] basically said, ‘I don’t understand why you would go to Twitter instead of coming to us.’”)

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the Ryan Murphy series Feud
Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the Ryan Murphy series Feud - Alamy

She has claimed Murphy had furthermore ghosted her after responding positively to her idea of a series of AHS with an all-black cast. “Remember your idea about a HORROR season starring black women? Well I’m doing it,” Murphy seemingly wrote to Ross, according to a screenshot she shared on Twitter. “Not sure of the story yet, but we will start a writers room in the fall.” That was the last she heard, and Murphy has so far not addressed her comments in public.

It isn’t the first time Murphy has been accused of running an unhappy set. In 2020, Glee!’s Lea Michele was called out for bullying by several former cast members. Michele’s co-star Heather Morris said the cast were too frightened to speak out.

“I think many people were very scared,” she said. “I know, genuinely, I didn’t feel like it was my place. And I don’t know why, because I was a cast member just like everybody else, and we all deserve to feel comfortable on a set.”

Murphy has admitted that Glee! wasn’t the easiest time in his life. The show was a mega-hit that put him on the map after the cult success of Nip/Tuck. However, he has said the off-camera drama occasionally spilled out of control.

Lady Gaga in American Horror Story
Lady Gaga in American Horror Story - FX

“There was a lot of infighting. There was a lot of people sleeping together and breaking up,” he recalled in 2021. “It was good training for being a parent, I’ll tell you that much. But I also made a mistake: We all got too personal.”

Just this year, Michele revealed she had “reached out” to former cast members who felt they had been bullied, saying she wanted to “make amends”. Either way, the controversy has done little to dent Murphy’s standing at Fox or Disney, which acquired the network in 2019. From serial killers to sex-obsessed plastic surgeons, his oeuvre is the precise opposite of Disney and its family values – yet he is set to depart Netflix and go back to Fox, which whom he made some of his most acclaimed shows, including seasons one and two of American Crime Story, which revisited the case of OJ Simpson and Gianni Versace.

Despite recent flops and the animosity around the latest American Horror Story, the industry still sees him as a proven hitmaker. That’s why even he will continue to work with Netflix – on both a new season of Monster, and a follow-up to his other big true crime hit, The Watcher.

“Very few people [are] capable of doing what he ultimately did at Netflix,” said the streamer’s CEO Ted Sarandos. “Everyone knew about Versace. Everybody knew about OJ. Everybody knows about Jeffrey Dahmer and yet he takes these stories that are so familiar and makes them completely fresh.”

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