8. American Horror Story: Freak Show
Ryan Murphy shows can be tasteless. Ryan Murphy shows can be incoherent. Ryan Murphy shows can be a collection of GIF-able one liners and celebrity cameos masquerading as a television series. The one thing Ryan Murphy shows cannot be, no matter how hard they try, is boring.
Except when they can!
7. The New Normal
Perhaps “Ryan Murphy” and “heartwarming family comedy” was not the greatest match of creator and material, even though The New Normal is theoretically based on Murphy’s own experiences having a child through surrogacy. Perhaps stuffing a “progressive” show about a gay couple with vicious jokes targeting everyone from fat people to Jews was not the greatest match of premise and execution. Either way, The New Normal was not a good show, and it made the mistake of encroaching on a market — Theoretically Inclusive Show That’s Really About Rich White People in LA — Modern Family already had cornered.
Disclaimer: like, well, pretty much everyone, I haven’t even come close to watching all of Glee‘s six seasons. But like the millions of viewers who abandoned ship sometime between Glee‘s peak and its long-overdue finale, I experienced the unpleasant sensation of falling out of love with a show that saw itself become the treacly teen drama it originally set out to mock. Remember when Sue Sylvester was allowed to be one of the most unrepentantly, cartoonishly mean villains on television? Remember when Sue married herself, foreshadowing the cavalcade of Very Special Episodes to come? Me too.
5. American Horror Story: Murder House
I prefer to think of the retroactively named Murder House as a Trojan horse for the insanity of American Horror Stories to come, because no matter how hard Jessica Lange vamps it up as a former Southern debutante, at the end of the day, the anthology series’ first season is a straightforward haunted house story, give or take a few S&M suits. And even though Murder House is technically better constructed than some of the higher-ranked AHS seasons, we don’t come to a Ryan Murphy show for the competent plotting. Shout-out to Connie Britton, though!
We have the prestige cable boom to thank for a lot of things: Peggy Olson, The Sopranos, that app where you can recreate the Game of Thornes shame-walk IRL. But most of all, cable gave Ryan Murphy his first real chance to let the crazy out. Set in the aesthetically gorgeous, spiritually bleak world of Miami plastic surgery, FX’s Nip/Tuck jumped the shark in its own pilot, which concludes with best frenemies and business partners Sean and Christian feeding a dead body to some Everglades crocodiles. This cleared the way for plenty of gore (even before the serial killer plot line!), a major trans character (though whether Ava Moore was handled well is another question entirely), and even a few salient points about the crushing weight of beauty standards and the moral bankruptcy of its central profession… before losing steam a few seasons in — another indicator of Murphy’s career to come.
3. American Horror Story: Coven
You know what? Coven may have turned out to be a tangled mess of unresolved conflicts and nonexistent stakes — 17 consecutive resurrections tend to take the edge off of character deaths — but it was fun. Really, really fun. Lily Rabe got to do a Stevie Nicks impersonation in front of Stevie Nicks! Gabourey Sidibe had sex with a minotaur! Emma Roberts delivered a millennial thinkpiece in the form of a voiceover! Coven also featured a far less showy, and far more convincing, version of girl power than its predecessor Asylum: a grand total of two major male characters, neither of whom can actually speak.
Murphy’s first show, and to this day one of his best — probably because the WB, unlike Fox, canceled this high school dramedy before it could go completely off the rails. Co-created with Gina Matthews, Popular has no musical gimmicks, just a popular cheerleader and an uncool student journalist forced to move in with each other when their parents fall in love. As in early Glee, Murphy’s ear for bitchy dialogue is perfectly suited to the self-absorption of suburban teenagers.
1. American Horror Story: Asylum
There’s a nice symmetry to having American Horror Story‘s best and worst seasons bookend this list. But Asylum really was Murphy’s finest hour, improbably following the usual recipe for disaster and ending up with a series that was infinitely better than it had any right to be. Like the typical Murphy show, a synopsis of Asylum sounds like a Stefon monologue; like the typical Murphy show, even its most well-meaning themes (feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia) are laid out with a lack of subtlety that threatens to erase any goodwill they’ve inspired in the audience.
Yet somehow, Asylum‘s Nazis, aliens, demonic possessions, Murder Santas, Oedipal complexes from hell, and hallucinated musical numbers came together to create something genuinely moving. This was largely thanks to knockout performances from Sarah Paulson as traumatized lesbian journalist Lana Winters and Jessica Lange as true female antihero Sister Jude, but it was also due to Murphy’s decision to use the camp in service of a larger story rather than letting it function as an end in itself.