By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
And more than just sexual identity, the slippery world of sexuality is a strong theme in all of Murphy’s work. Starting with the shock bonanza Nip/Tuck and on to the pulpy psychosexual drama of American Horror Story, the showrunner is unwavering in his commitment as a sexual provocateur (he would like to get more transgender characters in his shows, an issue that has yet to thaw with mainstream audiences). “Sex is the last taboo,” Murphy declares. “The conservative groups are very, very, very nervous about sex, particularly nonmissionary-position straight-people sex, so if you try to do something other than two people fucking in a bed under a sheet, it’s very difficult.”
During his six-year tenure on Nip/Tuck, a show that featured ultra-real scenes of viscera from plastic surgery (chisels cracking facial bones, serrated butt cheeks ready for implants, a rogue liposuction pump hosing operating room attendants with gooey human fat) and plenty of violence, the only standard queries Murphy received for the show always had to do with sex. He fought, every time: “I will always fight for boundaries of sex and sexuality to be pushed because I think that sex, particularly in television, is the most revealing character trait you can investigate.”
It should be pointed out that during most of its six-year run, Nip/Tuck was the highest-rated show on basic cable. Cable, beginning with HBO, has left networks panting to catch up with their provocative and popular programming; it was on cable that Murphy was able to break real ground before doing so on the networks.
With a hit series like Nip/Tuck on its hands, FX, the show’s network, conceded most fights to Murphy. Now Murphy has filmed it all. Sex with a rubber doll? Check. Sex with “the Hope Diamond of transsexuals”? You bet.
Perhaps even more provocative are the acts Murphy has inserted into the PG-rated Glee. The characters Blaine and Kurt (played by Darren Criss and Colfer, respectively) were the first openly gay teenage couple to share a kiss on network TV. Taking it a step further, the two boys are even shown lying amorously, noses pressed together, after losing their virginities to each other.
“Ryan has gotten me to do things I never thought I’d do,” says Walden with a hearty laugh. “What I really admire about Ryan as a show creator is that he refuses to water down his vision for broad appeal. I’ve seen so many other creators do that whereas Ryan will fight, with true passion, for his vision to get to the screen untouched.” Nevertheless, Murphy’s reputation as envelope-pusher has engendered a backlash, both from conservative groups who don’t like his message and from Twitter-happy Glee fans who want him to push further.
“I get complaints on Twitter that I don’t show enough,” Murphy says, exasperated. “It’s like, What do you want me to do? I can’t show teenagers fucking on FOX!”
These days, Murphy is more interested in emotional controversy. “That’s where I think The New Normal comes from,” he says. “I want to provoke people emotionally.” The NBC comedy, about a gay couple who adopt a newborn using a gestational surrogate, is based on Murphy’s real-life experience with spouse David Miller. “Sometimes I feel a bit prudish,” Murphy admits in his deadpan way. “With Logan [their 10-week-old son] in the house now, I feel like I need to cover up every Mapplethorpe print.”
For New Normal star Andrew Rannells, Murphy’s skill is to introduce homosexuality as fact, not simply a plot device. “He is inclusive to so many people,” he says, “so many types of people, that eventually the differences fade away and what you’re left with is the story and the emotion it creates.”
As the creator of three successful shows running concurrently on network and cable, as well as his forays into movies (he directed Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, and is adapting Larry Kramer’s raging AIDS polemic, The Normal Heart, for HBO, to star Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer), Murphy has emerged as a new Hollywood power broker -- a David Geffen for the 21st century equipped with a husband, a newborn son, and a rubber suit.