There are fewer unknown things than “the quality of a Ryan Murphy project.” If Murphy were a baseball player, he’d be one that had a .220 batting average but still manage to hit forty home runs a year. There’s no such thing as “average” when it comes to the quality of his projects: They are either incredible or incredibly awful. The same tendencies that fuel his best work also undermine it when things aren’t tuned specifically right. Luckily, with Feud: Bette And Joan (premiering March 5 on FX), just about everything is in tune, even if the song itself is filled with melancholy.
That sad streak is perhaps the most welcome aspect of Feud, which could have been eight hours of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange screaming at each other. Rather than a purely psychological piece about two legendary rivals, Feud is primarily concerned with why people engage in certain actions even when they understand it’s not in their best interests to do so. Every character in this show is trapped inside a system (economic, sociological, cultural, generational) in which the decks are stacked against them, but they feel powerless to be the one initiating any type of change.
Whether intentional or not, that provides Feud with enormous amounts of current cultural significance. At the heart of the show is an examination of an intrinsically sexist culture inside Hollywood that not only still currently exists, but also concurrently exists outside of Hollywood. It’s 100 percent impossible to hear two characters at the mid-point of the season speaking with optimism about the inevitable demographic superiority women will soon possess without thinking of the outcome of the 2016 election. That’s not to say that the show overtly makes this connection in any sense, but just as in The People v. OJ: American Crime Story, Murphy is keen here to tell a story in our recent past to show just how far we haven’t come.
To be sure, the sadness baked into Feud doesn’t overwhelm it, but it does ground the repeatedly larger-than-life interactions that unfold. We’ve all seen demanding actors, indifferent executives, and put-upon assistants in our entertainment before. And we’ve also seen top-notch actors such as Sarandon and Lange go toe-to-toe in thrilling fashion. But Feud understands that we as a viewing public are as complicit as anyone onscreen in establishing the framework in which Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are essentially encouraged to undermine one other. As someone with only a cursory knowledge of their lives and works, Feud still works in the grand tradition of two people who should have been allies forced into antagonistic positions. (A little play called Hamilton: An American Musical may or may not use this exact narrative fuel.)
Even though it’s only eight episodes, Feud takes a great deal of time dramatizing the specific ways in which Davis and Crawford tentatively reach out before clawing at the face of the other. That effort gives context to the lurid headlines that titillate the public. The show deliberately shows how a cutting quote is the byproduct from a thousand paper cuts, rarely inflicted by the person dragged under the bus in a trade publication. Everyone serves a certain master in this show, and the insults that start from the top of the food chain are passed down to the next level. Humiliation is a commodity passed down to those upon whom the characters can inflict it, which often means a completely innocent person is crushed without having a single clue why it happened.
That’s something everyone can relate to, and another example of how smart Feud is about its own concept. After all, it’s tempting to mock the very concept of Murphy’s latest anthology series without even seeing it. On face value, it seems to lack the depth or flexibility of American Crime Story or even American Horror Story. But what is clear, having seen half of the eight episodes, is that Feud is an equally supple banner upon which to dramatize a series of stories. All three are keenly interested in new historicism, a field of critical studies developed in the 1980s that flourished in the ’90s. Without oversimplifying things, new historicism suggests that it’s impossible to separate “literary” texts from “non-literary” ones, and focuses on the intersection of the relation between the two to derive meaning from the era in which both were produced in order to unveil the “true” culture of that time.
(I’m not saying Ryan Murphy is a huge Steven Greenblatt fan, but I would say that the two would have a ridiculously large amount of things to discuss were they ever in the same room.)
While neither of these three shows is guaranteed success through the application of this critical analysis, it does provide the opportunity for each season to be a stealth show that gradually reveals itself as something other than its stated premise. A show that talks about the corrosive affects of ageism, particularly as it pertains to woman, is an important one. But it’s tough to create a 30-second television spot that inspires people to tune it. A show that demonstrates how “diva” behavior is tolerated (if not downright supported) when men do it but vilified when women do far less is also vital. But that’s also a hard sell. Ryan Murphy, at his best, knows the secret of how to craft a show that works as both an elevator pitch and a long-form narrative season. (Come for Sarandon as she brings Davis’ boffo performance in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? to life! Stay for an examination of just how little we’ve progressed as a society since 1962!)
Far from just a two-woman show, Feud is rife with great performances from top to bottom. Alfred Molina’s Robert Aldrich is both a lothario and self-loathing artist, yearning for acceptance yet undercut at every step of the way. As Hedda Hopper, Judy Davis has the Bringing Up Baby-esque patter down pat, but also offers a sympathetic shoulder at surprising turns. As Crawford’s confidant and maid, Jackie Hoffman’s Mamacita damn near steals every scene she’s in, as does Alison Wright (The Americans), whose performance as Aldrich’s assistant becomes more central as the season progresses.
Anthologies have unleashed the best qualities of Murphy’s unlimited but often unfocused energies. It’s unfair to call Feud a “happy surprise,” insomuch as I didn’t think that I would dislike it when I started watching. But I definitely did not know what the show would ultimately reveal itself to be, and was delighted to see its agenda slowly emerge. I imagine many of you will be equally delighted when it premieres in March.