I received the book Prime Time, Prime Movers for Christmas and have been plowing through it over the last week or so. As these things go, reading a book about the big individual creative forces in television history has me thinking about contemporary writer/producers. Therefore, today, I debut a new occasional feature where I will discuss the work of one or more major television voice. I think this could be a really fun addition to the web site and I really, really enjoyed thinking about and writing this piece. I hope you feel as strongly.
Clearly, that headline is meant to be provocative and it there’s a good chance it doesn’t even make sense, but hear me out. Sometime near the finale of American Horror Story, I was kicking around ideas about the similarities between Ryan Murphy and Matthew Weiner and the season one finale of AHS only confirmed my prospective thesis further.* Let me state this up-front, as to avoid any undue confusion or criticism: Ryan Murphy is not as good of a television storyteller as Matthew Weiner. It’s not even close. Murphy has his moments as a writer and as a director, some of which I’m going to discuss in fairly heavy detail throughout this piece, but he cannot really compete with Weiner. Say what you will about Matthew Weiner as a person, but as a storyteller, he’s one of the best that the medium has to offer. On a similar note, I’m also not saying that Glee or American Horror Story are as good as or the same as Mad Men. That’s literally insane.
*I am, of course, aware that television writing isn’t done by one person. The auteur theory is difficult to apply in a television setting and pointing out a singular voice is similarly challenging. Both Murphy and Weiner have staffs that work with them to craft ideas, arcs, etc. and therefore it’s faulty to assume the two men came up with every idea I’ll be discussing. But as the powerful executive producers and clear voices of their series, I do find it okay to give Murphy and Weiner a certain modicum of respect and power.
Nevertheless, this piece will focus on the ways in which Murphy and Weiner approach episodic and full-season storytelling, how they construct arcs, imbed themes and so on. There, I argue, is where the similarities between the two very different writers lie. It is my assertion that these two powerful men approach individual episodes and full-seasons in a very similar fashion and that they appear to have similar hopes for how individual episodes relate to one another and work to complete an entire season. Although Murphy and Weiner execute their stories in dissimilar fashion (and quality, obviously), both writers deal in big themes and like to create a sense of “completion” by the time a season of their respective series comes to an end.
I want to start with Matthew Weiner, as to set a template of sorts. If you look at individual episodes of Mad Men, the use of heavy serialized storytelling isn’t really there. Of course, Mad Men isn’t an old-school procedural where the characters forget about this week’s problems next week. Plot developments can carry over and entire season can be dominated by one larger arc. For example, season four’s primary plot is about the infancy of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. However, Mad Men also isn’t heavily serialized in the contemporary television sort of way. It’s not Lost, where every episode is intensely connected to all those before and after it. Weeks pass between individual episodes, full seasons scan entire years. Character arcs matter on an episode to episode basis, but certain characters also move in and out of the picture.
More importantly is the way Weiner uses individual episodes in relationship to full seasons. Single episodes have a beginning, middle and end. Again, plot might directly carry over, but it might not. But Weiner is adept at conveying to the audience big concepts or themes that are fairly easily identified within most episodes in a specific season. Meaning, in season four the audience knew that the year’s big story was about Don’s descent and possible road to recovery. It was about stripping away certain parts of his identity and trying to move forward with what remained. Thus, though one episode in season four was about Don’s depression around the holidays and another just a few weeks later focused on a meeting with Honda and Roger’s inherent racist tendencies, we knew that the overall story was still about Don’s identity issues and struggles with substance abuse and mindless sex. We could then view each episode through that prism, should we choose to.
And by the end of the season in “Tomorrowland,” there was a sense of culmination. We checked in on Don and the rest of the Mad Men characters 12 different times throughout the year and we watched Mr. Draper sink to some really awful lows and slowly pull himself out of the drunken, sex-filled stooper, only to make an oddly rash and arguably awful decision to marry young Megan. Yet, no matter how we personally felt about Don’s decisions, we still could grasp Matthew Weiner’s intent for the season and point out how the season came together as a whole. In that regard, individual episodes might not directly relate to one another, but Weiner purposefully works them together so that they feel like separate, but connected chapters in a novel.
Lots of showrunners and executive producers talk about their stories in literary terms, but Weiner is one of the people who actually back up that brand of commentary. Series like Boardwalk Empire or Treme attempt something similar, but I would posit that the former is more reliant on overt serialization in plot while the latter isn’t reliant enough on serialization, leading to a fairly standalone feeling (despite the appearance of an exploration of larger themes). However, each season of Mad Men really does feel like its own novel.
Ultimately, Matthew Weiner constructs each season of Mad Men with certain themes and destinations in mind. By the end of the season, those themes have covered and those destinations have been met. The series offers a sense of completion at the end of each season.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized (or convinced myself, perhaps) that Ryan Murphy approaches storytelling on Glee and American Horror Story the same way. Or at least attempts approach storytelling on those series in the same way. The problem, of course, is that Ryan Murphy isn’t as talented as Matthew Weiner and isn’t as interested in making sure everything fits together. His attention to detail pales in comparison to the meticulous way Weiner controls everything on Mad Men. Because of Murphy’s obvious weakness, his true intention in regards to the purpose of individual episodes and longer arcs I obfuscated by horribly inconsistent plotting, embarrassing character work and a whole lot of flashy filler (whether song remixes or poached horror sequences). Murphy quickly loses interest, control or both of his stories and his characters, but in many ways, you can see the bare bones of intent in all three seasons of Glee and in the first season of American Horror Story.
Despite all his flaws as a storyteller, the one thing Ryan Murphy knows how to do well is create powerful individual moments. And he’s smartly figured out how to use his biggest strength to both convey a sense of culmination/completion of a journey and to cover up all the prior mistakes he made in plotting or character as “just part of the journey” (more on this later). The primary way that Murphy accomplishes these goals is through the competition episodes, particularly the competition scenes and the musical performances that close out the episode.
The elements I want to point out on stronger in the last two seasons of the series, but let’s start with the series’ initial 13 episodes that culminated with New Directions’ first Sectional competition anyway. At that point, Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk were apparently more interested in using the competitions as a quality framework for episodic and half-season arc storytelling. Meaning, Glee was initially more overtly serialized than it has become in seasons two and three. Most episodes in the first 13 had beginnings, middles and ends, but plot tended to carry over a bit more and time was compressed more than it typically is on Mad Men.
At the same time, however, the road to Sectionals provided the series both overarching plots and themes that carried the series directly to specific moments in that 13th episode, “Sectionals.” Those initial 13 episodes were clearly following an underdog story template, but I would also argue that they were thematically focused on interrogating masculinity through both Finn and Will. Therefore, even though Glee came out of the gate with the awful dual pregnancy-related stories (among all sorts of other dumb side explorations), “Sectionals” is thematically about Finn and Will embracing their identities as men. For the former that means sacking up and being the leader he needs to be and for the latter, it means letting go of professional dreams while embracing the possibility of personal freedom.
By the end of “Sectionals,” Murphy wants the audience to feel like they’ve been on a legitimate journey with the New Directions and Will. Not only has the primary plot arc “concluded,” in that they’ve won Sectionals, but the big themes have reached a sense of temporary resolution. And again, on Glee, Murphy (and his team) his musical performances to harp on these themes so strongly there is no way the audience can miss them. New Directions’ performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and its connection to the earlier scene where Will gives Finn a pep-talk are so noticeably supposed to evoke Finn’s struggles with his identity.
And at the very close of the episode, the group’s performance of “My Life Would Suck Without You” clearly celebrates both Will’s masterful teaching job (and thus his willingness to put his dreams aside for the benefit of others) and the possibility that he’s found true love with Emma. This again evokes the character’s struggle with his masculinity and you could even argue that the group passing him a cowboy hat, a sign denoting masculinity, only further hammers that point home.
Thus, by the end of “Sectionals,” it doesn’t matter to Ryan Murphy that things might have been kind of sloppy and characters acted like idiots. It was all part of the journey to moderate maturation, to success in the competition and most importantly I would argue, to the triumph of masculinity and heteronormativity. Again, I think that the first 13 episodes of Glee had more structure than everything that has followed and therefore this introductory arc doesn’t entirely create 1-to-1 comparisons between Murphy and Weiner. However, the highlighting of moments, ones that celebrate a culmination of a journey, in “Sectionals” keep these initial episodes in line with my argument nonetheless.
Yet, where the comparison starts to come together more, perhaps indirectly, is in the second half of Glee’s first season and onward. After the success (narratively-speaking) of the first 13 episodes, Murphy and company kept the competition as an ominous end result, but failed to rely on the structure that it could give individual episodes. This, in my opinion, is the series’ most disappointing flaw, but that’s neither here nor there. What is important, however, is looking at how changes in individual episodes in the second half of Glee S1 altered the way Murphy approached the finale to that story (and the whole season) in “Journey to Regionals.” And after eight barely-connected episodes that generally failed to focus on making Regionals seem important or challenging whatsoever, how did Ryan Murphy shift the feeling and storytelling of the finale? Not at all, of course!
“Journey to Regionals” is more or less the same episode as “Sectionals” in a structural and thematic sense. Underdog New Directions? Check. Meditation on masculinity (this time Will and arguably, Puck)? Of course. Competition performance that emphasizes the path the New Directions kids have taken? Absolutely. Final scene performance that celebrates said journey, general growth and a celebration of Will Schuester and his relationship with the kids? Duh bro.
When “Journey to Regionals” aired, I and a number of other critics pointed out that it felt like the conclusion to better, phantom season that we didn’t actually get to see. A season where the members of New Directions worked really hard to overcome various odds in hopes of just making a solid showing at Regionals. A season where Will Schuester doesn’t rapidly morph into one of the worst human beings on the planet. But Ryan Murphy doesn’t actually care or even think it was a phantom season at all. For Murphy, Will having an epiphany in his car about the group performing a cheesy, moving Journey medley (get it, Journey?) is the perfect call back to a few different scenes in the pilot, just as the dual odes Will and the students trade with one another are the perfect call backs to “Sectionals.” Those scenes attempt to bring a sense of completion and of coming full circle. This is where we’ve been and this is where we’re going. That’s Storytelling 101 and smart for Murphy to do, in theory. But in execution? Not earned at all. And of course, that’s the primary difference between his version of this kind of storytelling and the way in which Weiner executes his version of it.
Glee exploited the competition episodes even more in season two. The first half of the second season is a substantial mess and Murphy and his team barely bothered to spend much time talking about Sectionals at all. It appeared to be not important whatsoever. The characters, including the fearless leader Will, were too busy breaking one another’s hearts, arguing over petty things, transferring schools, starting Britney Spears’ sex riots or costing the school thousands of dollars in a misguided attempt to put on Rocky Horror Picture Show so they could sleep with the guidance counselor (Will Schuester, everyone!).
No matter though, because “Special Education” just followed the “Sectionals” template almost to a T and pretended that the episode was the culmination of a tough-fought battle (you know, while simultaneously poking fun at the whole system by featuring a glee club full of old people). Will randomly decides that undervalued members of the club are going to get their time to shine, so Santana gets her solo, Mike and Brittany get a major dance number and Trouty Mouth and Quinn take Finn and Rachel’s duet. The performances of “Valarie” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” are presented as a celebration of the underappreciated, as if we spent the last seven episodes watching them struggle to find their spot in the glee club. And obviously, the episode is capped off by two other underused singers, Tina and Mercedes, leading ND in a belting of “The Dog Days Are Over,” a symbolic call that all the tension and challenges are now behind them.
In the vacuum, these moments are fine. In fact, Naya Rivera’s performance of “Valarie” is one of the series’ best all-time musical bits and “Dog Days” is pretty good as well. But in the context of the narrative and with considerations for Murphy’s intent? Laughable. While many of these characters were given a solid amount of time on-screen in the early episodes, very little of that time had anything to do with their undervalued musical abilities. Quinn, Sam, Brittany, Mike and Tina were all involved in various romantic entanglements, but that’s not a good enough justification for why Will randomly decides to let them shine at Sectionals.
In fact, the general handling of Sectionals in seasons two and three, from the excessive jokes about the judges and the other teams to the on-a-whim strategy of New Directions, completely devalues all the emotion, tension and pay-offs that the first season’s survey of that event provided. Murphy and his team retroactively construct a third of a season’s worth of drama and development in hopes of adding some gravitas to the proceedings, but it’s so transparent and wrong. At this point, Glee appears to do the competition episodes because that’s just a thing that they do.
I won’t beat the Glee drum too much longer, but I want to quickly point out that season two’s “Original Song” and “New York” and this season’s “Hold On To Sixteen” basically follow the same template and also more or less fail to justify the use of that template. “Original Song” is the celebration of Rachel’s tough path as a first-time songwriter; “New York” is yet another “phantom finale” that takes all the non-diegetic creative mistakes and writers them off as diegetic reasoning for why the group wasn’t ready to succeed.
This season’s “Hold On To Sixteen” is probably the most egregious of them all. It screams its thematic interests so loud they’re the title of the episode while somehow pretending to solve the initially-solid chasm between the underappreciated performers in the Troubletones and the remaining members of New Directions. We cannot forget the reappearance of more retroactive character development for characters like Quinn, where the writers again pretended that their awful mistakes were all purposeful additions to reach a specific destination, or the quick real introduction of any tension between Finn and Blaine, only to have it go through the entire conflict-resolution process in roughly seven or eight minutes of screen-time and honestly no more than a couple of hours in the character’s time. Throw in a final, celebratory performance of “We Are Young,” and the Glee staff couldn’t be pushing the intended themes in your face more.
What really brought this all together for me was the season finale of American Horror Story. After a sloppy, insane and barely coherent string of episodes that appeared to be building to something even more sloppy and insane, “Afterbirth” burned through any big plot movement in the first few acts and then settled in to an oddly-paced, weird epilogue-like story. In that portion of the episode, characters basically barked the season’s themes at one another (the Tate/Ben conversation most notably) and disregarded much of the insanity and problems between them because, well, now they’re ghosts and everything is fine. Little of the previous 11 episodes had to make sense or be paid off in a substantial way, but Murphy and company wanted you to embrace the emotion of the resolution. Logic doesn’t matter.
Somewhat insanely, this approach to storytelling, one that disregards the value of individual episode coherency and ultimately forefronts supposed thematic destinations, actually works better for American Horror Story than it does Glee. This is partially because of the typical suspension of disbelief that comes with watching something like AHS, but I also think that Murphy and his team did a better job actually constructing a path to that finale than he does on Glee. “Afterbirth” itself is still completely terrible, don’t get me wrong. However, I’m willing to buy the Harmon’s placated calm in the afterlife much more than I am whatever the hell happened to Quinn this season on Glee.
The primary variance in the two approaches (other than quality, of course) is subtlety. Matthew Weiner might give Sepinwall and fellow critics some hints about what the themes for an upcoming episode or season are, but he doesn’t particularly make it that easy for the audience to identify, interpret and examine those themes. Mad Men is a thematically rich story that requires the audience to do a little work, which is what can make watching it such a satisfying experience.
Ryan Murphy doesn’t deal in subtlety. In fact, he deals in the exact opposite, he is the anti-subtlety. As I’ve chronicled and anyone who has watched Glee or American Horror Story can attest, Murphy uses everything, from musical interludes to horror imagery to on-the-nose dialogue and even episode titles, to get his point across. I would argue that this obviousness is one of the reasons Murphy’s flawed journey-based storytelling is so easy to criticize. It is one thing to retroactively create character development or to pretend something is more meaningful than it is or to use a cheap song to embody themes, it is another thing to do all those things and rub the audience’s nose in the fact that you’re doing those things. I don’t think being slightly more subtle with theme would make everyone forgive Ryan Murphy, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt matters.
Ultimately, there are major differences between Ryan Murphy’s style and Matthew Weiner’s style, particularly in just in pure quality. And there’s also no question that there are other major television auteurs (ugh, that word – quick, I need a replacement) who approach storytelling in a similar fashion. It’s not like these two guys are so unique and special. I do, however, like the juxtaposition of Ryan Murphy and Matthew Weiner and the consideration that they’re actually trying to do a lot of the same things with their respective series. The quality is widely different and many of the similarities aren’t entirely visible because Murphy gussies his projects up with additional elements (Music! Horror! Nonsensical plotting!). Yet, the similarities in intent are quite interesting to me and perhaps shine a dim light on how widely dissimilar series are closer together than we might think.