Ryan Murphy makes TV that's erratic, obnoxious, and endlessly frustrating. He's also capable of some of the finest, most viscerally entertaining seasons of television imaginable. His signature style is one of excess and barely contained chaos, so it's no surprise that so many of his shows just come flying apart at the seams. Sometimes, though. Sometimes everybody involved manages to hold on for dear life, and the high-wire act actually pays off for an entire season. And it is a sight to see.
So which seasons of Murphy's handful of TV projects managed to hold together the best?
The Total Fiascos
16. Nip/Tuck, Season 6: It was pretty much a guarantee that the final season of Nip/Tuck would be an ungainly mess, since that was the trajectory the show had been on since pretty much the beginning. But my oh my did it not disappoint in that respect. By the second episode, Matt McNamara (John Hensley) was not only working as a mime, but a bank-robbing mime. Add to that Rose McGowan as a kind of boogeyman story for men who marry, a main-character suicide, and a rather unmemorable ending. Famke Janssen did come back for a few episodes, which was nice.
15. The New Normal, Season 1: After Glee had already made people plenty nervous about Murphy taking up the mantle of What It Means to Be Gay, viewers ultimately rejected this well-intentioned, occasionally funny, but mostly unwatchably didactic season of television. Nene Leakes played the Klumps in one episode. That little girl's Little Edie impersonation was fun, but not nearly enough.
14. Nip/Tuck Season 4: Boring is, of course, relative when you're talking about Ryan Murphy shows, but this stretch of Nip/Tuck was just uninspired. Not that a season-long arc involving Sanaa Lathan, Larry Hagman, Larry Hagman's posthetic testicles, and Jacqueline Bisset as the head of an organ-thieving ring doesn't have it's own urban-legend charm, but all the main characters were seriously spinning their wheels.
13. Glee, Season 3: Seemingly out of ideas, this was the season that started adding cast members from The Glee Project, had Rachel and Finn get engaged for some insane reason, and kept transferring people between high-school choir groups like they were on NBA teams.
Promising But Frustrating
12. Nip/Tuck, Season 1: There was a lot of material in this first season that shocked viewers, plus a lot of scenes of the two main characters speaking in very blunt terms about the themes of the show (DID YOU KNOW AMERICANS ARE OBSESSED WITH UNACHIEVABLE BEAUTY IDEALS?). Still, the characters were distinctive and there were some wild individual episodes. The big climax of the season with the drug deal was kind of blah.
11. Glee, Season 2: The significant problems that made themselves aware in Glee's first season really flourished in the second. Inconsistencies in character (ugh, Sue), ill-advised theme episodes (ugh, Rocky Horror), a Super Bowl episode that was shockingly forgettable. Some of the best aspects of the show flourished, though, and this was the year everybody figured out what assets Brittany and Santana were.
10. Nip/Tuck, Season 3: After the high of the second-season finale, things got off to a fast start in season three. But some unfortunate casting decisions placed a good deal of the plot's weight on the shoulders of people like Rhona Mitra and Bruno Campos, which was ... a mistake. And for as thrilling as the multi-season Carver arc was, that resolution to it was astoundingly bad.
The Hottest of Messes
09. American Horror Story: Coven: We've talked for a bit about why this current season of AHS has been so unsatisfying. Not least of which because it was a squandering of the triple threat of Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates.
08. Glee, Season 4: It was never really going to work when the main Glee characters left high school and the show split up into this multiple-personality creature which both stayed behind at McKinley and added a bunch of new characters and followed Rachel and Kurt to New York City and their careers in entertainment and soul-crushing disappointment. But some things worked really great! And some things (almost all the new kids) were incredibly boring. And sometimes Sarah Jessica Parker stopped by and delivered a mashup of Scissor Sisters and Burt Bacharach.
07. Popular, Season 2: An unholy combination of high camp and squeaky lesson-learning was a pattern that would end up repeating itself a bunch on Glee. Popular really set that template in its second season, for good or (mostly) ill. This only ranks so high because of the storyline wherein Harrison (Christopher Gorham) gets possessed by the bone marrow of Nicole (Tammy Lynn Michaels). But my gosh, did the sappiness and preachiness get severe.
06. Glee, Season 1: This is almost ranked too high, because any season that featured that abominable fake-pregnancy storyline should be banished to the hinterlands, I don't care how inexplicably amusing it was that there was a store called Sheets-N-Things. But remember when it seemed like Glee was going to be a sensational way to combine your musical fix and your teen drama fix? Remember when Idina Menzel and Lea Michele did "Poker Face" and "I Dreamed a Dream," and the fan service was exciting? It lasted like two months, tops, but it was a time.
05. Nip/Tuck, Season 5: Moving the action from Miami to Hollywood was actually a fun reinvention of the show. ...For a while. And you got to see Bradley Cooper in various states of undress. And Sharon Gless killed someone with a Build-a-Bear machine. So.
04. American Horror Story: Murder House: This started out shaky, and the marriage between Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott's characters wasn't written with the most care. But the sheer chutzpah of the show was a shot in the arm, and Jessica Lange became the unquestioned star of the show for a reason. By the time the season hit the home stretch, this was can't-miss TV.
03. Popular, Season 1: It's been fifteen years, and we still haven't gotten a TV character as perfectly entertaining as Leslie Grossman's Mary Cherry. The rest of the show was constantly striving to reach her level. And when it did, as it did on many, many episodes, it was the stuff of camp magic.
02. Nip/Tuck, Season 2: This was the season where the Carver storyline began, one of the better rollercoaster rides of Murphy's career, and it STILL wasn't the best thing about the season. Famke Janssen as femme fatale Ava Moore gave a brilliant performance that stretched all bounds of responsibility and good taste, but which was utterly compelling.
01. American Horror Story: Asylum: Almost everything worthwhile that Ryan Murphy has ever attached his name to, even the best things, carries with it a degree of messiness. Oftentimes, that messiness is invigorating. But whether it was the presence of co-producers like Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk or what, Asylum managed to pull off the one thing Murphy never really did on his other shows. It held together. The storyline, grotesque and hard to watch at times as it was, had a narrative propulsion to it, and its constant series of payoffs for all its characters led to actual catharsis at the end. Miraculous and bloody and featuring performances by Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Lily Rabe that were shamefully underrewarded.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.