This is a post-mortem of sorts.
It has been the best of times for Ryan Murphy, it has been a… troublesome time for Ryan Murphy. On the one hand, his miniseries Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (a title straight from the X-Men films’ school) quickly became one of the biggest series in Netflix’s history and The Watcher is also a huge hit. On the other, he’s been taking more flak than a sensible librarian at a Deep South School Board meeting. But unlike in that tortured metaphor, the roles are inverted and it’s Murphy who is in the wrong here. Monster has been rightly criticized for being exploitative, retraumatizing for the relatives of Dahmer’s victims, not doing enough to humanize the victims and racist microaggressions behind the scenes. For many, this was the almost predictable outcome from a showrunner who has never found a source material he couldn’t turn into shows that are divisive at best and offensive-ass trainwrecks at worst.
There wouldn’t be anything wrong with Murphy’s approach if he weren’t increasingly biting off more than he can chew. It’s one thing to depict OJ Simpson’s trial with all the flashiness afforded by a basic-cable budget, but you can only pull that trick with certain stories. The People v. O. J. Simpson killed it by deftly reflecting the zeitgeist of the year it was released, 2016, in how objectivity became drowned by noise and empty spectacle. The Assassination of Gianni Versace slapped because it still gave a damn about the victims of Cunanan, but the cracks began to show. What happens when the victims aren’t, say, one of the most influential Italian designers of the 20th Century?
As the (very legitimate) criticisms of Monster piled on, and as Ryan Murphy responded by putting his foot firmly in his mouth, there was only one thought in my mind: Thank Liberation Theology Christ that he did not get to produce Five Days at Memorial.
Coming in hot from the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson, it was decided that the next season of American Crime Story would focus on Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Initially, Murphy wanted to adapt Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, taking on the mismanagement of the disaster at the highest levels. A year later, the planned season turned to Sheri Fink’s non-fiction book by the same title, with Sarah Paulson taking on the role of Dr. Anna Pou. But by 2019, the project was shelved and the rights (owned by freaking Scott Rudin), where shopped elsewhere. By September 2020, the miniseries was picked up by Apple, written and developed by Carlton Cuse and John Ridley. The end result was a win all around, a series that took on one of the most horrific humanitarian disasters in American* history the way it should: With solemnity and subtlety. Two things that Murphy cannot deliver.
Five Days at Memorial is, as Dustin described in his review, a show that is in a category above “hard to watch,” because “hard to watch” is usually an excuse to avoid watching something, and Five Days at Memorial is the kind of thing people need to watch, like Shoah, Come and See, Exterminate all the Brutes</em> or, more recently, Argentina, 1985’s second half. But just like those aforementioned series and movies, Five Days is an artistic success, it is exemplary of how the horrors of systemic failures should be portrayed on screen. Because the failures that led to the tragedy of New Orleans are the same that allowed someone like Dahmer to get away with it for so long. Unsurprisingly, everything Five Days at Memorial succeeded at is something Ryan Murphy could and should consider for whatever his next “American Story” project might be. Things he could adjust in order to dignify those stories (stories that always involve victims of some kind).
Cast whoever’s right for the role, not whoever can create buzz.
Murphy has a roster of actors he likes to rotate around his projects; that’s a valid choice and his prerogative, but eventually, you get the feeling that you are in the most elaborate contest of cover bands: Sure, that guy sings and moves exactly like Bowie and that other one can do Jimmy Page in period-accurate t-shirts. And would you look at that? Bowie is being impersonated by Harry Styles and that’s Joe Satriani doing Page. The buzz around every project by Murphy circles around which A-Lister will be recruited and how will Sarah Paulson or Evan Peters transform themselves. Works so far in that they are usually public personas or recognizable fictitious characters. The “fun” is in comparing the real thing with the reenactment.
But the staff and patients at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center were not public personas. Neither were Dahmer’s victims nor the people within his blast radius. Stunts work against you in those kinds of stories. This is where the showrunners behind Five Days succeeded first: Save for Vera Farmiga as Anna Pou, the cast is not made up of stars, or at least not yet. Instead, we have an ensemble of character and working actors, some of whom you might recognize, some you might not. But they all feel credible in their roles; you are not distracted by seeing Clive Owen as Bill Clinton, and they feel like the real people they are portraying. And. they. get. to. SHINE. Each character gets several scenes to be fully fleshed out, and each one of these actors DELIVERS. Adepero Oduye, Cornelius Smith Jr., Robert Pine, Damon Standifer, Julie Ann Emery, and especially Molly Hager, Cherry Jones, W. Earl Brown, and Michael Gaston come through the screen for your heart. This ensemble better be shown some love by the SAG this year (or we riot). This is how you cast for the right combination of actor and character; this is how you cast responsibly for a real-life story.
Make it only as long as it needs to be.
Five Days is told over the course of eight episodes, five of which are dedicated to the days the staff and patients were trapped by the rising waters, while the remaining three focus on the aftermath of the staff’s decisions and the investigations that followed. According to IMDb, it’s only 6 hours and 16 minutes long; a few chapters’ runtimes are under 45 minutes. That’s all you need to get a very complete picture of the horrors of those five days and of how the return to normalcy put everything into perspective.
Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy’s shows, well, they do love hovering around the 10-episode order and as close as possible to an hour each, don’t they? With real-life tragedies, do not confuse exploring their effects with morbid indulgence.
You can show the horror without indulging in it
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is perhaps the worst at this. Perhaps the reason Monster was not produced as a season of American Crime Story is because of the content restrictions on FX as a basic cable channel. I guess it’s something about graphic and gory being OK, but not graphic, gory, and gay? Whatever the case, Murphy’s shows wear their horror sensitivities on their sleeves. That’s great for American Horror Story, but there is a line that reality draws on the playing field, in which you do not have a constitutional right, as a producer, to play with the suspension of disbelief and atmospheres framed from the lens of genre conventions. You have to tread lightly.
Five Days at Memorial knew exactly how to deal with the horror they were portraying. The horror that results when a civilization collapses over people that, for one or more reasons, were always deemed as bodies by the rulers of that civilization. The collapse of the levees, the flooding of New Orleans, the tens of thousands of refugees concentrated in the Super Dome or in the Convention Center, and the hundreds trapped at Memorial Baptist Hospital — they were all victims of a crime much more complex than the straight-forward ones committed by serial killers or entitled former NFL players. That horror demands another type of framing, but that doesn’t mean watering it down.
I think the fourth and fifth episodes of Five Days might have some of the most brutal, heartbreaking scenes in recent TV history; we saw what happens when human beings are abandoned by civilization. Those things happened for real, those things must compel any producer or writer to tread lightly, not with how much you show or don’t show, but in reminding us every way society failed to get us to those 45 dead people at Memorial Baptist. The film conventions of horror always need the framing to fall onto one person or force, which makes it easier to depict the horrors they bring unto others because there is a path to reestablishing order. Five Days could not afford to do that, because it’s about what happens when you don’t see any path toward the restoration of order; Five Days is a tragedy, and could only be told as a tragedy. That’s what Murphy’s shows based on real life should’ve considered, from day one (The People v. O.J. Simpson still rules tho).
Solemnity, seriousness, subtlety.
To conclude and as an extension of the previous point, let me reiterate: Murphy’s shows are a visual spectacle — showy, full of furious camera pans and angles, flashy needle drops, and a heightened color palette. An almost hysteric tone that worked brilliantly for the first season of ACS, but it can end up overwhelming the strength of the story itself, muting the themes and whatever the hell they were actually trying to say.
When I say Five Days at Memorial is “solemn,” some of you might reasonably get the impression that this means the series is boring or dull. It is not at all, but the conventions of entertainment don’t apply to a series like this. I hate having to resort to the dictionary when making an argument, being one of the prime fallacies of homophobes trying to come up with an argument, but it could help us here: Cambridge says “serious and without any humour” or “having or showing serious purpose and determination”; Merriam-Webster gives “marked by the observance of established form or ceremony specifically: celebrated with full liturgical ceremony” and “awe-inspiring : SUBLIME”, “marked by grave sedateness and earnest sobriety” and “SOMBER, GLOOMY”. I like Merriam-Webster’s better, how solemnity can accrue all the experiences you also associate with loss, trauma, and mourning. Five Days’ visual restraint, its naturalist use of light, camera movement, editing, and dialogue is up to the circumstances. Solemn in that we need to be in a particular emotional state, and that state is “jump in and let yourself be taken in,” not the emotional state you set yourself for when you are about to see a spectacle. A simpler way to describe all this is that Five Days knew from the start which tone to set, while Murphy’s shows mix them willy-nilly. But I think it’s more about the attitude with which you approach such a project. The showrunners realized that Five Days was both a sample and a perfect encapsulation of everything and everyone that failed during Katrina. How some failures were bigger than others, and how some things that could be considered a failure from one point of view were just the reasonable outcome in that moment.
Five Days at Memorial could not have been told under the framework of American Crime Story, because it actually allows us to ponder what the doctors at Memorial should’ve or could’ve done, whether what happened was actually a crime or the only thing they were able to do, within their power. That kind of ambiguity is, most times, wholly absent from Murphy’s shows. But that doesn’t mean they should always be like that. Five Days provides a great template for how to tell real-life tragedies… differently. It wasn’t the only example this year, Under the Banner of Heaven also succeeded in the same way. Both were stories that needed to be told; it’s all about making sure the telling of those stories is worth it.
(Five Days at Memorial did not neglect to remind us who wore the final responsibility: The recaps at the beginning of the first five episodes always included George W. Bush doing his disaster-zone photo-ops)