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Ryan Murphy, You Have Burned Me For The Last Time

If you’re like me, you’ve had this experience a few times a year: you see an ad for a show and it has a fascinating concept. Then, you see it was made by Ryan Murphy and decide it’s not worth your time. Every once in a while, I decide not to trust my gut. I, a working mother with very little free time, sometimes entrust my precious few hours of leisure time to a Ryan Murphy production. I am, almost invariably, disappointed.

Around this time last year, in such a mood, I watched The Watcher. Those seven horrific episodes led me to a life-altering decision: I’m not watching anything by Ryan Murphy anymore. 

Now, this may not seem like a big deal. But here’s the thing: I was a Gleek. I was a “Normal People Scare Me” girlie. Ryan Murphy’s writing shaped my taste in media, and my teenage memories are indelibly marked by the multiple Glee CDs I owned and the image of Connie Britton eating brain. All this is to say: swearing off Ryan Murphy is, for me, like throwing a childhood blanket into a fire and dispassionately watching it burn. 

The infamous "Normal People Scare Me" shirt on Evan Peters

But seriously, The Watcher was that bad. 

It’s a running joke that everything Ryan Murphy touches turns to shit. But the problem is more nuanced than that. 

The man can write an amazing first three or four episodes, but he loses steam so quickly. He can’t end a story to save his life. Just look at American Horror Story: Coven, Freak Show, Hotel, and probably every season since (though I can’t confirm, as I swore off AHS after Cult). Even the AHS seasons that are genuinely good - Murder House and Asylum - have major pacing issues, drop subplots halfway through the season, and the Asylum ending is bizarre to say the least. Freak Show is notable in that it shows both extremes of Ryan’s writing in half a season. Jessica Lange singing “Gods & Monsters” is one of the best pieces of iconography Murphy has ever produced, but he also killed off the Big Bad, Twisty the Clown, in episode four.

Jessica Lange singing a cover of Lana del Rey's "Gods and Monsters" on AHS Freak Show

Glee takes a major nosedive after season three, and is borderline unwatchable after Cory Monteith died (which I won’t hold against Ryan Murphy. The death or the nosedive). While I haven’t watched Nip/Tuck or Pose, a quick look at their respective subreddits tells the same story: the show started off strong but went off the rails. 

Ryan Murphy is certainly capable of good writing, and I think AHS: Murder House and the first two seasons of Glee showcase his strengths: lovable characters, heightened concepts, and uninhibited camp. But this makes it hurt so much more when his stories go sour. 

This seems to be Ryan’s pattern: come up with a great concept, pitch it to FX, assume Sarah Paulsen and Evan Peters will participate, make a first episode that promises an intriguing season full of twists and turns, and then go do something else. I don’t know if Ryan Murphy has a writer’s room full of yes-men, writes everything himself, or foists the script upon an unlucky showrunner halfway through the season and sashays away. I’m sure all of these things have happened on different seasons of different shows. The point is, almost all of his creations meet the same end: they fall victim to mediocrity. 

Bobby Cannavale as Dean Brannock in The Watcher

The reason I trusted The Watcher was because it seemed to break from this mold. Firstly, none of Ryan Murphy’s regulars were in it. Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts lead the production, while Margo Martindale, Richard Kind, and Jennifer Coolidge lend support as the main couple’s neighbors and realtor, respectively. If you’re a connoisseur of esteemed character actors, you know this cast is STACKED. Every actor is deeply talented and has intense onscreen charisma…in everything except The Watcher

The Watcher is very loosely based on a true story. The basis of this show is that a couple(Cannavale and Watts) purchase a historic home in a historic town. They begin to receive threatening letters in the mail from someone who claims to be the “The Watcher” and is obsessed with the house they’ve purchased. These notes become more threatening and both of them begin to lose themselves in their search for The Watcher. There’s multiple people with motive and reason to be The Watcher; their territorial neighbors, the local historical society, and even the realtor who sold them the house in the first place. At first, there’s intrigue! There’s cracks in their marriage that could be exacerbated by this whole situation! They have children to protect! Cannavale and Watts have great chemistry in the first episode, and Coolidge, Martindale, and Kind all promise to be colorful characters in their own rights. 

And then Ryan Murphy kills off Martindale and Kind’s characters in episode two, after setting them up to be the Big Bad. Sound familiar? 

This was when I got a bad feeling about The Watcher. 

The whole season is convoluted, badly paced, and feels like a retelling of AHS: Murder House but with an underground historical society instead of ghosts. Oh, and remember how Margo Martingdale and Richard Kind died? No they didn’t. It was just a trick! For two episodes, Watts and Cannavale go around town listlessly accusing literally every single character we have met of being The Watcher. I’m not exaggerating. Everyone we have met in the last five episodes is accused of being The Watcher. Cannavale and Watts are trying their best to make this shit believable, but there’s only hate in their eyes. Coolidge has completely checked out by episode five, and Martindale and Kind are given so little to work with that they become forgettable. It’s a complete and utter waste of perfectly good character actors! 

Then, the season ends, I kid you not, by implying that everybody was The Watcher the whole time. Oh, and there are secret tunnels into the house. And also a massive conspiracy by the local historical society. The show stops just short of having Watts and Cannavale stare down the barrel and accuse you, the viewer, of being The Watcher. I would have liked it better if it had. 

Bafflingly, it has been renewed for a second season

Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel

The mistakes that Ryan Murphy makes in The Watcher aren’t new. For every befuddling plot point that happened, I could point to a season of Glee or AHS where Ryan Murphy made the same mistake. The Watcher has none of Ryan Murphy’s usual aesthetic sensibilities but all of his flaws. Watching it, I couldn’t even think about the plot, because the quality of the writing reminded me that time is a flat circle. Humanity is inherently flawed in ways that can hurt others, even if all we do is steal a few hours of their time, as Ryan has stolen seven of mine. Even though people can change, sometimes they choose not to. 

Ryan Murphy could hand off the writing to other professionals. He could hire a script supervisor. An editor, even. But he doesn’t. And we, now Watchers ourselves, keep thinking that maybe this one will be different. This story will end well. This show will follow through. This time, it’s different. But it never is. Because it’s Ryan Murphy all the way down. 

Tabitha Wilson was on Tumblr in 2012 and it shows. They work as a content writer for a small marketing startup and currently live in Appalachia. When not looking after their kid, they love to read, write, and watch 90 Day Fiancé. They love seeking divinity in the trashiest media imaginable. You can find Tabitha on Instagram as @tabithathorns .


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