Say hi to Ryan Murphy, the $ 300 million king of Hollywood who phoned him
WWhen Netflix hired super-producer Ryan Murphy in 2018, it was seen as a statement of intent, about as subtle as jumping up and down, slapping your chest, and roaring at your rivals. In football terms, Murphy was a big money signing, galactic TV, proof if needed that the streamer was serious about his plans for world domination. To hell with the cost.
Everything he touched turned into a blow. For television he had created the plastic surgery drama Pinch / Tuck, the high school song and dance festival Joy and the extravagance of the 1980s ball scene Pose. With the feature film Eat Pray Love, an adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, it sort of converted Julia Roberts who wanted a pizza into $ 200million (£ 145million) at the box office. There was something for everyone in Murphy’s locker: glossy drama for adults, self-help for divorcees, happy schmaltz for the kids, american horror story for whoever watches this.
The award suited the reputation of a man regularly described as one of Hollywood’s most powerful people. Murphy received a five-year, $ 300 million “global deal” where Netflix would take whatever it decided to give them. In terms of production, it was as close to absolute freedom as anyone is likely to get without owning the studio or being Christopher Nolan.
It was also, judging by Murphy’s output since signing, a titanic waste of money. In fact, it’s unfair to Titanic, which cost $ 200 million but grossed 10 times as much and won numerous Oscars. The series Murphy brought to Netflix ranged from mediocre to borderline impossible to watch. They didn’t win any Oscar.
There was first The politician, about over-ambitious political students. Then there was Hollywood (overly ambitious post-war actors), ratchet (nurse too ambitious) and Halston (designer too ambitious). The last part of his American crime story The franchise will star Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky.
These programs all share a preference for style over substance. The costumes, sets, locations and actors are brilliant and brilliantly lit. But under the spice and starry cast – Gwyneth Paltrow in The politician, Jim Parsons in Hollywood, Sharon Stone in ratchet – these are series in search of an idea of animation. The politician said nothing that was not articulated with more bite Election, even if it still bore traces of satirical effervescence, at least in its first series. Hollywood was as flat as an old director’s cap. His central subversive observation was that some people in post-war show business could have been secretly gay. The dialogue was weak, the characters were narcissistic caricatures. It is fast food disguised as fine cuisine: attractive in the short term but ultimately unsatisfactory.
Counterintuitively, Murphy’s failure is grounds for optimism. It’s proof that while money can buy you visual treats and endless marketing budgets and Paltrow’s precious time away from peddling vaginal candles, he can’t buy you quality. When it comes to budget and creative control, you can have too much of the right stuff. This kind of deal would make anyone lazy. Murphy is the king of the call. He’s not resting on his laurels so much as huddled in them, sound asleep, less Hollywood than Holly? Even Federer has a coach, and the most talented writers or producers need someone to say no every now and then. In terms of Nolan, Principle was not a bigger job than Memento. When someone says no, the creator has to make a different decision. Good work remains an elusive chemistry of producer, director, writer, cast, and crew that can’t be forced, even by Netflix.
Not that the experience with Murphy seems to have discouraged them. They’ve engaged everyone from DB Weiss and David Benioff to Shonda Rimes to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. At least the latter have a proven track record of producing elite dramas. Other streamers have their own great deals, like Amazon’s with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It is reminiscent of the divorcing oligarchs who hired dozens of lawyers, just to keep them from working for the opposition. Maybe the idea is that it’s safer to have them pump slag inside the tent than risk them hitting a rival.
As for the man himself, Murphy is unlikely to care that critics sniffed out these programs. Despite his heaps of accolades, he’s never been a critical darling. The opinions of Pinch / Tuck and Joy were far from perfect. He’s a quintessential populist, with a proven eye for what audiences want, even if it’s different from what critics think they want. In addition, before entering television, Murphy was a journalist. It will come as no surprise to him that the one thing journalists can’t stand, even more than a glossy series with flimsy dialogue, is a hack that has made $ 300 million.