Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ryan Murphy's Commonality

Ryan Murphy (writer, director, producer, etc.) is a popular figure in Hollywood these days. His recent popularity is due to the hit TV shows Glee and American Horror Story.

I am a fan of both shows, as you may have gathered from my previous post. Watching both Glee and American Horror Story, I noticed certain similarities. Each show addresses mental health issues, and brings them to a wide audience. This spurned further research into other Ryan Murphy projects. Here is a list of some of his major works…

Popular (TV series, The WB, 1999 - 2001)
Nip/Tuck (TV series, FX, 2003 – 2010)
Running with Scissors (Movie, Sony Pictures United States, 2006)
Glee (TV series, Fox, 2009 – Present)
American Horror Story (TV series, FX, 2011 – Present)

Each addresses various issues of mental health. As I researched, I was floored with how Ryan Murphy has brought these topics to mass audiences without alienating them. We’ll take a brief look at each. (To be clear, I have not seen Popular, Nip/Tuck, or Running with Scissors. I learned all this through research.)

Popular is a comedy/drama about two polar opposite teenage women who move in together when their single parents get married. Brook McQueen is the popular one, and Sam McPherson is not. Brooke’s mother abandoned her family when she was little, and Sam’s father died when she was fourteen.

It’s a pretty straightforward set up. So where do the mental health issues come in? Well, Brooke deals with bulimia and anxiety. Other characters struggle with suicidal feeling and emotional abuse. Many teenage shows deal with these issues, but this was the beginning of a trend for Murphy. Unfortunately, the show did not do so well. It was on for only two seasons, and cancelled after its 43rd episode.

Nip/Tuck was EXTREMELY popular. It is a drama that centers around two friends (Christian Troy and Sean McNamara) and their plastic surgery practice (McNamara/Troy). Each episode involves how the personal lives of the two main characters are affected by their professional practice.

Again, pretty straightforward. This show, dealing with cosmetic surgery, addresses a slew of various body image disorders. McNamara and Troy’s patients also struggle with sexual abuse and dissociative identity disorder, to name a couple. Personally, Troy has a sex addiction, and McNamara’s son self-injures. Murphy was able to bring some of these issues to a MUCH larger audience, continuing to carve out his niche. Nip/Tuck ran for 6 seasons with 100 episodes.

Running with Scissors is a feature film from Sony Pictures United States starring Annette Bening, Joseph Cross, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alec Baldwin to name a few…written and directed by Ryan Murphy, based on the memoir (of the same name) by Augusten Burroughs.

The film centers on Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) and his mother Deirdre (Annette Bening). The main plot is about Augusten’s adolescence, where (after his parents’ divorce) he is sent to live with his mother’s psychiatrist. He goes from a pristine home to utter filth. He lives there for years, visited by Deirdre, who seems more and more unstable. Murphy had a very strong connection to the story. The author and he frequently discussed various aspects of the film throughout its production.

Deirdre struggles with a mental illness unknowingly. Later in life, she was diagnosed “as a bipolar borderline psychotic with manic depressive tendencies.” Throughout the story, she has NO idea this is the case, and neither does her son. Annette Bening said the following about working on this character with Ryan Murphy: “When I was approaching the part I just so wanted Deirdre to be real in the picture. I didn't want to do it in fact unless I felt from Ryan [Murphy] the same kind of interest in the care of the mental illness part of her character was done. I just had a real aversion to the other way of approaching [it], as something kind of funny or glamorous. I mean, she's a very funny woman obviously. I love that part of her. She's hilarious. But just in terms of playing someone with mental illness, I felt an incredible responsibility to being responsible about that and making it real.”

This is what Ryan Murphy said about Deirdre Burroughs and Annette Bening’s portrayal: “Hers is one of the most harrowing portraits of mental illness I've seen. She made sure that it was always about the truth."
Here, we see Murphy tackling some major and messy mental health issues. Running with Scissors was not well-received critically.

Glee is in its third season, and wildly popular. It is a comedy/drama revolving around a glee club from (the fictional) William McKinley High School in Ohio. The students, along with the faculty sponsor, put on musical numbers (usually based on a single theme per episode). They are opposed by the cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).

Glee is a delightfully unique TV series. How many non-reality shows are full blown musicals?  I mean, really?  It does deal with its fair share of mental health issues. The most prominent of which features Emma Pillsbury, the guidance counselor, and her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also focuses on body image issues. 

In the first season, Mercedes, one of the glee clubs strongest voices, joins the Cheerios…the cheerleading squad. She is pressured to lose weight, and multiple students discuss their stresses around wanting to be “thin.” At the end of this particular episode, Mercedes sings “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. It’s a wonderfully moving rendition, and drives home the message that beauty is not about how one looks.

American Horror Story is Murphy’s most recent creation. It is a horror/drama centering on the Harmon family: Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivien (Connie Britton), and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Ben and Vivien are struggling with infidelity and decide to move from Boston to Los Angeles. Violet has a hard time with the transition, and their new home happens to be quite haunted.

Well…that’s a hell of a set up. Considering Ryan Murphy’s history, I find it surprising he went for the horror genre. The fascinating thing is...he still addresses mental health issues.

Violet meets a boy…a ghost boy who goes by the name of Tate Langdon (Evan Peters). They spend a lot of time together, and all the while Violet has no idea Tate is dead. Violet begins to self-injure by cutting her harms with a razor. At one point, Tate tells her that she can’t kill herself by doing that. Violet says that’s not what she’s trying to do.

This shows again how Ryan Murphy understands mental illness. American Horror Story started in the fall of 2011. It is just about to finish its first season.

Looking at these Ryan Murphy projects, it’s clear that mental health issues are important to him. He does what he can to bring them to the public in ways that are digestible, and makes one think. It’s refreshing to see someone who has a great deal of influence use it to shed light on such an important topic that he is passionate about.

I think Ryan Murphy’s next project should be with ETD. What do you think?  I’ll get RIGHT on that. :)

-C. Weise

Chris Weise is a member of ETD's Ambassador Council and Production Manager on the upcoming ETD production Finding Peace in This House. He also wears a directing hat for ETD from time to time. Click here to read more posts from Chris.

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