In February of 2018, Ryan Murphy signed a massive deal with Netflix, a five-year $300 million behemoth that was the biggest TV contract in history. The deal took Murphy from his former home at 20th Century Fox, where he'd spent years making his reputation as television's most extreme, boundary-pushing, taste-defying creator, having shepherded shows like Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and Pose. His work has ranged from respected (American Crime Story) to campy (Popular), and Netflix clearly viewed him as a major cash cow. With 2021 set to mark the midpoint of Murphy's deal, and with three major series and two features under his belt, now seems like the perfect time to check in and see how it's working out.
The Criteria: We'll be grading Ryan Murphy's various film and TV projects for Netflix based on their critical reception ("reviews"), whatever kind of viewership information is out there ("ratings"), any awards attention they've attracted, whatever kind of social media footprint they've established (a subjective criteria, to be sure), and finally, how these projects have expanded upon Ryan Murphy's already prodigious repertory company of recurring cast members. Which is to say, how much exciting new talent have each of these projects brought to the Murphy-verse?
Murphy's first series for Netflix was actually developed before his big $300 million deal was in place, so Netflix had to bid for this one, ultimately outspending rivals Amazon and Hulu for the arch dramedy about a near-sociopathic teen (Ben Platt) pursuing his dream of becoming a career politician. The first season premiered in 2019 and followed the candidate, Payton Hobart, through a cutthroat campaign for high-school class president, while the second, which arrived this past summer, covered his campaign for New York State Senate and featured Judith Light and Bette Midler as his adversaries.
Reviews: The reviews were not good for the first Murphy/Netflix venture, especially for the first season, which also featured an excruciating Munchausen-by-proxy subplot involving Jessica Lange. The second season's reviews were even worse — down to a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes from 58% for Season 1 — and even factoring in how ambivalent TV critics usually are about Murphy's shows, this one had few champions. GRADE: C-
"Ratings": Netflix doesn't report ratings numbers like regular TV networks do, but what we do know is that The Politician didn't show up among 2019's most binged shows or on Forbes' list of shows that most often appeared on Netflix's top 10 the first half of this year. GRADE: C
Awards: The Politician managed to snag five Emmy nominations, including one for its intricate but puzzling opening credits (why that particular Sufjan Stevens song?) and one for Bette Midler's guest-star turn in the Season 1 finale. None won, though. GRADE: B-
Expansion of the Murphy Repertory: Lange, Light, and Gwyneth Paltrow were already established within the Murphy-verse, as were guest stars like Dylan McDermott, Teddy Sears, and Jackie Hoffman. But the real accomplishment of The Politician was that it added a slew of young talent to the Ryan Murphy repertory company. Obviously Ben Platt is a huge get, and the way the show repeatedly catered to him — giving Payton random singing scenes; getting Platt in his underwear — suggests Murphy really wanted to spotlight him. But not to be underestimated are the likes of Laura Dreyfuss, Theo Germaine, and Rahne Jones. Also, not for nothing: BETTE MIDLER! GRADE: A
Subjective social footprint: The first season saw some decent social reach — in particular for the scene where Jessica Lange says "That's what gays do: munch butts and celebrate Halloween!" Nothing quite on the level of Murphy's most popular shows, but the clips of Platt singing songs by Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel certainly made the rounds. GRADE: B
Miscellania: It shouldn't go unmentioned that this show was originally meant to star Barbra Streisand in the Lange role. The loss of that opportunity for the Murphy-verse is incalculable. GRADE: C-
OVERALL GRADE: B-
Murphy's glitzy miniseries was a piece of historical fiction rooted in some real-life Hollywood figures (Rock Hudson; Anna May Wong), some fictionalized versions of real events, and some straight-up fantasy. It envisioned an alternate history where the entertainment industry might have made different, bolder choices, forever altering American cultural history for the better. Some enjoyed its pie-eyed optimism, while others found it cynical, but given the star power and awards attention it attracted, it's tough to argue it's not exactly what Netflix wanted.
Reviews: With a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, the reviews for Hollywood were middling to poor, although quite a few of the performances received good notices. GRADE: C-
"Ratings": Hollywood did make that Forbes list, which declared the show Netflix's sixth highest-charting series in May. GRADE: B
Awards: In a very strong field for limited series this year, Hollywood pulled in a robust 12 nominations, putting it among the top 10 most honored shows of the year. Performances by Jim Parsons, Dylan McDermott, Jeremy Pope, and Holland Taylor all earned nominations, and the show won twice, for its hairstyling and theme music. GRADE: B+
Expansion of the Murphy Repertory: The addition of Holland Taylor, the real-life partner of Murphy all-star Sarah Paulson, was a welcome development. And it would be great if Mira Sorvino's small role blossomed into something bigger and better down the road. But the most exciting additions were Jeremy Pope and Samara Weaving, who both seem destined for greatness. GRADE: B+
Subjective social footprint: Most of the attention this one received on social media was pretty negative in tone. Not even Patti LuPone's presence elicited much in the way of viral chatter. GRADE: C-
OVERALL GRADE: B
Murphy partnered with writer Evan Romansky for this fanciful spin on the villainous Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and with its dreamy visuals, lurid story turns, and strong performances, it made a big impact.
Reviews: While Sarah Paulson's lead performance and the typically Murphy-an visual flair drew compliments, Ratched's overall reviews were all over the map, earning it a not-so-great 62% from Rotten Tomatoes. GRADE: C+
"Ratings": Here's where Ratched showed up big, as Netflix reported that 48 million people watched the show in its first month, making it at the time Netflix's most-streamed new show of the year. GRADE: A
Awards: Ratched premiered after the Emmy window, but we'd be surprised if it doesn't nab a few Golden Globe nominations in the new year. GRADE: N/A
Expansion of the Murphy Repertory: First-time Ryan Murphy players on this one included Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Sophie Okonedo, Amanda Plummer, Brandon Flynn, and Vincent D'Onofrio, and one can imagine pretty much all of them shining in the Murphy-verse going forward. GRADE: A-
Subjective social footprint: Much of the social media attention surrounding Ratched revolved around the show's lesbian love story, which gave the show a boost. GRADE: B+
OVERALL GRADE: A-
Ryan Murphy's adaptation of the stage revival (which he produced) of the 1968 Mart Crowley play (which was itself made into a 1970 film) brought back all the stars of the stage revival in a very faithful adaptation that went heavy on the original play's vitriol while remaining a very watchable (if not always pleasant) experience.
Reviews: Director Joe Mantello's work garnered strong reviews, en route to an 82% Rotten Tomatoes score. GRADE: A-
"Ratings": Again, Netflix doesn't report viewership numbers, but a ScreenEngine/ASI report on 2020 streaming movies did not include The Boys in the Band in its top 30. GRADE: C
Awards: The 2020 movie awards season hasn't arrived yet, but The Boys in the Band isn't expected be a serious contender. GRADE: N/A
Expansion of the Murphy Repertory: The entire cast was held over from the Murphy-produced Broadway show, so nobody was exactly new to the Murphy-verse, although hopefully the phenomenal Robin de Jesus will show up in many more Murphy productions to come. GRADE: C
Subjective social footprint: Beyond the reviews, this movie did not make much of an impression. GRADE: C-
OVERALL GRADE: C+
The Tony-nominated stage musical was snatched up by Ryan Murphy for a film adaptation. It's just the third time Murphy himself has directed a feature film, and the spotlight could not be bigger given the film's A-List cast. The story follows four Broadway performers looking to turn their careers around by cynically getting behind the cause of a lesbian couple who want to go to prom together in small-town Indiana. In a year where Netflix has a ton of big movie projects on its plate, The Prom is one of the biggest.
Reviews: Despite some high profile pans, as of this writing The Prom has managed a decent-enough 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, earning more mixed-positive reviews than not. GRADE: B
"Ratings": Seeing as this is a new release, it's too soon to tell, though it is one of the more hyped streaming debuts in all of December. GRADE: N/A
Awards: Again, we're too early for movie awards season, but we wouldn't be surprised to see this to nab at least a few Golden Globe nominations. GRADE: N/A
Expansion of the Murphy Repertory: Very much, yes. With the exception of Andrew Rannells, all the major stars of The Prom are first-time Murphy cast members. That includes the likes of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, Kerry Washington, and Keegan-Michael Key. If Murphy can convince even a few of them to return for any of his future Netflix projects, it'll be a huge win. GRADE: A
Subjective social footprint: Oh, this one has already gotten plenty of people talking, for both good and for ill. Obviously adapting a major Broadway production comes with a lot of expectations — as does any film featuring Streep or Kidman. Unfortunately a lot of the early chatter has surrounded Corden's performance as a gay man, which has drawn a fair amount of criticism. GRADE: C+
Miscellania: No matter how The Prom turns out, it's hard to argue that this isn't exactly the kind of thing Netflix signed Ryan Murphy for: a big, glitzy, eye-catching, indulgently-cast production that draws a ton of attention. That mission already seems to be accomplished. GRADE: B+
OVERALL GRADE: B+
In addition to his TV series and feature films, Murphy has also had a hand in producing a pair of documentaries which premiered on Netflix this year. A Secret Love tells the stories of a decades-long hidden lesbian relationship and earned uniformly strong reviews when it debuted in April. Meanwhile, Circus of Books, which tells the story of the legendary gay book shop and pornography store in West Hollywood, was released in April to similarly great reviews.
As always, the horizon for Ryan Murphy is bedazzled with exciting projects, and the Netflix deal promises plenty of them — and that's even as anthology series like American Horror Story and American Crime Story continue on other networks.
He's got a miniseries on the life and career of fashion icon Halston, to be played by Ewan McGregor. The cast will also include Rebecca Dayan as Elsa Peretti, Rory Culkin as the late filmmaker Joel Schumacher, and Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli.
After tackling his first musical in The Prom, Murphy also has two other musicals in the works: a ten-episode miniseries adaptation of A Chorus Line, which sounds like it will incorporate the backstage process of Michael Bennett creating the legendary Broadway production. There's also The Legend of Georgia McBride, which Murphy is working on with Matthew Lopez (Broadway's The Inheritance).
Murphy is also re-teaming with frequent collaborator Ian Brennan on a Jeffrey Dahmer miniseries that has already gathered the talents of actor Richard Jenkins (who will play Dahmer's father), writer/director Janet Mock (Pose; Hollywood), and director Carl Franklin (The Leftovers; Mindhunter).
When it comes to Ryan Murphy and Netflix, the biggest and best may be yet to come. 2020 gave us our best big taste yet of the kinds of projects that Murphy's been drawn to, with the two biggest trends being miniseries over recurring series (The Politician notwithstanding) and an attraction to stage adaptations. And, of course, Netflix's deep pockets have allowed Murphy's casting ambitions to grow even more lofty. He hasn't earned himself an "A" quite yet, but he certainly has plenty of opportunities to get there.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.