Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. The episode of the week for October 11 through 17, 2015, is the second episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, season five, titled "Chutes and Ladders."
One of the best pieces of TV journalism I've read recently is Lacey Rose's profile of super-producer Ryan Murphy in the Hollywood Reporter.
Rose accurately names Murphy, who has three major shows either on the air or arriving imminently (American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and American Crime Story) and gigantic hits like Glee in his past, the most powerful TV producer not named Shonda Rhimes.
But she also gets at something I've felt seeping into Murphy's work for a while, something that's only been heightened in both Scream Queens and the current season of American Horror Story: Murphy no longer wants to be one of the cool young teens or 20-somethings. No, he's become their dad, and he's a little horrified by what they're up to.
And it's hurting his shows.
"You can't be the enfant terrible when you have the enfant at home"
Rose pegs a major shift in Murphy's personality to his 2012 marriage to David Miller and the arrival of the couple's two sons. Writes Rose:
For years, he was among the industry's prickliest figures. He'd famously resist nearly every note he was given, and a damning tweet or a few poor reviews could send him spiraling. "When I was starting out in Hollywood, everything was such a battle," he says, seated now in his three-story loft-style office on the Fox lot. "My impulse had always been to be a person who's uptight, who's all, 'I'll show them' and 'I got to change the world so that people like me don't go through this anymore,' and while I still feel a degree of that, it's different for me now. I feel like I grew up in such a big way in the past couple of years, in a way that I never thought I would." Then, a smile sets in: "You can't be the enfant terrible when you have the enfant at home."
Rose also looks back to Murphy's days on Glee, when he says he would leave work with the cast, then go right out and spend the night partying with them. In the interview, he says he was trying to have another childhood. As Rose establishes, his actual childhood was full of pain and heartache.
That's all fine as it goes. There are many, many artists who start out writing stories from the point of view of the children in parent-child relationships, then start writing from the point of view of the parent once they have kids. But Murphy's storytelling style is intentionally provocative and deliberately surface-level. He never lets you guess what's going on when you could be told, at length, what he thinks. (Weirdly, that makes his closest showrunner cousins South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose show runs opposite AHS on Wednesday nights.) For instance, the latest AHS episode, "Chutes and Ladders," pauses frequently for monologues in which characters lay out in excruciating expository detail just what's wrong at the ol' hotel.
Since he's shifted from identifying with the kids to identifying with the parents, however, Murphy's didactic style has turned him into something he's never been before: a bit of a scold.
A horror show about unvaccinated children and second screen experiences
In many ways, American Horror Story: Hotel is a chance for Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk to take another crack at Murder House, the first season of the show and one of the most influential TV seasons in recent memory. At the time, the show's wild mashup of horror movie influences, music video style, and completely bizarre plot twists felt like nothing else on TV. It didn't make sense, and it was often actively terrible, but it was always trying something.
Hotel is at once more disciplined and somehow less coherent. The series' visual aesthetic cribs heavily from the music videos of this season's star, Lady Gaga, and the story rehashes season one's idea that the titular structure is haunted by seemingly thousands of ghosts, then adds vampires, who are quick to assure they aren't vampires — they just have "the virus," because Murphy said earlier he'd never do vampires on the show.
Yet amid the co-mingling of sex and death, a constant on the show, there are frequent parental freakouts. The season premiere featured a nightmarish kidnapping scenario, and now that kidnapped child, whose police officer father is investigating the blood-soaked hotel's origins, has turned up at the hotel, having not aged a day. It's completely ridiculous, but also occasionally poignant. Parents fret endlessly over losing a child; those who are unlucky enough to actually see it happen often wind up with images of that child, frozen in time, unable to progress through adolescence toward adulthood.
But that parental paranoia infects other portions of the series as well, in less enjoyable ways. In particular, the scenes featuring the deathless kidnapped children suggest a Parents.com contributed piece about how much time kids spend looking at screens nowadays. (When the vampire kids aren't chasing guests around the hotel, they're eating candy and playing Space Invaders, because sure.)
Meanwhile, there's a whole scene in "Chutes and Ladders" devoted to a doctor discovering that one of her patients (whom we may never see again, knowing this show) has the measles, because anti-vaccination rhetoric is strong in the southern California world she lives in. The show keeps setting aside its usual adventures in horror pastiche for earnest considerations of the dangers kids face today, and it's just weird.
But it has nothing on Scream Queens
My colleague Caroline Framke accurately pegs Scream Queens' greatest problem as its casual satiric racism that is, nevertheless, delivered by characters Murphy and company obviously adore writing for. ("She gets to say the things we can't!" you imagine them cackling.)
But it's also done in by Murphy's new concerns over the future of America's children. To be sure, there are scenes when this new obsession is confidently handled, funny even. In the series premiere, one character couldn't stop texting and tweeting, to the degree that she sent out a tweet detailing her death at the hands of the series' slasher villain. It was the kind of satire Murphy's shows hit just often enough to keep you watching.
But the show also seems deeply worried about America's teenagers, in a way Glee really didn't. For as much of an after-school special on amphetamines as that show was, it had a fundamental belief in the goodness of its kids. All of the show's true villains were adults, and if a teenager seemed to be a bad guy, he would reveal a sweet side soon enough.
That's not really true on Scream Queens. Its college girls are vapid and status-obsessed. The guys are meathead goofballs who treat the women in their life poorly, if they're not stalking them. All of this is satirical and in keeping with the heavily stereotypical characters in the slasher films the show parodies (right down to the token "good girl" who will probably make it to the end), but it feels like the awful teen panic movie Thirteen, which never met an aspect of adolescent sexuality it couldn't freak out over.
None of this is to suggest that Murphy's work has gotten that much worse. He's still the wildly inconsistent, occasionally awful, occasionally genius writer he's always been. But his perspective has shifted in ways he may not even be fully aware of, and it's fascinating to watch as his shows shift from series that celebrated teenage experimentation to shows that endlessly worry about it.
Correction: This article originally mixed up the last names of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It's been fixed!