In his three years at Netflix, power producer Ryan Murphy has maintained a brisk pace of new releases. Since migrating from 21st Century Fox, where he supplied a steady stream of hits—among them Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story—Murphy’s CV has expanded to include two seasons of The Politician; one season of Ratched; miniseries Hollywood and Halston; documentaries Pray Away and A Secret Love; and film adaptations of The Boys in the Band and The Prom, the latter of which Murphy directed. In sheer quantity, at least, the streaming service has something to show for the estimated $300 million it shelled out to sign Murphy in 2018.
What that list does not include, however, is the kind of path-breaking hit Netflix prizes above all: a Stranger Things, or Squid Game, or Bridgerton. (That last show is produced by Shonda Rhimes, another recipient of a blockbuster deal poaching her from a traditional network.) Many of Murphy’s later shows have been critically derided, while none have achieved the momentum of a would-be franchise. At just a couple of seasons, The Politician is Murphy’s longest-running Netflix series to date, compared with six of Glee and 11 (as of this week) of American Horror Story. Ratched was announced as a two-season order, but even star Sarah Paulson seems uncertain about its future.
In the meantime, much has changed at Netflix itself. Exponential growth gave way to two consecutive quarters of subscriber losses, which then caused a plunge in its stock that wiped out billions in market value. The time of seemingly unlimited spending on deals like Murphy’s, designed to signal a friendliness to top-tier talent, appears to be over, as Netflix has carried out numerous cost-cutting measures, including layoffs. As the end of Murphy’s deal in 2023 looms on the horizon, it’s been tempting to speculate whether Netflix had even gotten its money’s worth, let alone whether the company would choose to renew the partnership on similarly extravagant terms.
But now, right at the buzzer, Murphy has finally delivered a hit. Two hits, actually: the awkwardly punctuated Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, starring Evan Peters as the eponymous serial killer, and The Watcher, a seven-part mystery thriller loosely—very loosely—based on a true story. The former landed on the service in late September and, according to Netflix’s self-reported statistics, rapidly became the second biggest English-language premiere in company history, just behind the fourth season of Stranger Things. In its fourth week on the service, Dahmer continued to rack up over 100 million hours of subscribers’ time, more than double the next-lowest entry in the Netflix Top 10.
So remarkable is Dahmer’s success that it would likely change the narrative around its producer slash cocreator on its own. Just three weeks later, though, Murphy and frequent collaborator Ian Brennan debuted their follow-up. In dramatizing the still-unsolved mystery of a New Jersey couple’s harassment by a creepy, anonymous letter writer obsessed with their new house, The Watcher becomes a full-on horror yarn, starring Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts as the unsuspecting victims. In just its first three days on Netflix, The Watcher soared past 125 million viewing hours. (The company’s most recent report captures viewing only through October 16.) Along with Dahmer, it now sits comfortably atop the trending section of the service’s home page.
It turns out that Murphy is capable of matching the heights of Netflix’s prior homegrown success stories—and, in a way, his own earlier work. Both Dahmer and The Watcher read like echoes, if not direct extensions, of projects that predate Murphy’s move to streaming. Dahmer isn’t the cannibal’s first appearance in the greater Murphy-verse; the Wisconsin native first appeared in American Horror Story: Hotel, the anthology’s fifth season, as a guest at a ghostly dinner party. (Other attendees included Richard Ramirez, H.H. Holmes, and John Wayne Gacy.) That version of Dahmer was played by Seth Gabel, who also appears in The Watcher as a previous owner of the story’s central house. Unlike the various seasons of American Horror Story, Murphy’s later shows aren’t officially interconnected, but there are still traceable strands of shared DNA.
Dahmer is a somber work of true crime, a hard break from Hotel’s trippy fantasia. Instead, it channels the structure and social commentary of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the second installment of American Crime Story. A haunting, underrated work of tragedy, Assassination moves backward from its titular event, diverting attention away from both the tabloid scandal and the disturbed killer behind it. With each episode, Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith centered the victims and the institutional homophobia that’s rendered them a historical footnote. Dahmer, too, opens at the close of an extended killing spree, and works to highlight the unspoken bigotry that shielded a monster from even minimal scrutiny. The show is nowhere near as sharp as Assassination, often backsliding into rote origin story. But it’s easy to see what Dahmer is striving for, in part because Murphy has already set the bar for himself.
Yet the camp lunacy of American Horror Story lives on in The Watcher, which essentially reruns the plot of American Horror Story: Murder House with antique dumbwaiters in lieu of leather gimp suits. Back in 2011, that first season—then simply billed as American Horror Story; the subtitle is retroactive—shocked fans by killing off most of its cast, then changed the course of television by reinventing itself as an anthology. (You can date a decade’s worth of prestige miniseries, movie star migration, and award gamesmanship back to that one clever twist.) In 2022, The Watcher doesn’t have the element of surprise on its side, at least in terms of a structural bait-and-switch. Instead, it’s content to embellish the details of the New York magazine article it’s based on, turning a realist sketch of NIMBY paranoia into a supernatural romp.
Even as Murphy cribs from his earlier FX shows, both franchises live on—and will soon be joined by American Sports Story and American Love Story, two more iterations of Murphy’s proven formula. As high as Murphy’s price tag was, it didn’t quite buy exclusivity, allowing the continued expansion of existing frameworks like American ____ Story. Considering the flexible nature of the anthology format, it’s quite the loophole, enabling a drama about the socialites surrounding author Truman Capote to be shoehorned into a second season of Feud, which began as a breakdown of the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But while this situation might be frustrating for Netflix, it’s also not ideal for FX; one can’t imagine the network is thrilled Dahmer took off on streaming when it easily could’ve worked as a season of American Crime Story.
The one unambiguous winner is Murphy himself, who can now say he contributed to Netflix reversing the tide on its subscriber tally. Of the 2.4 million new users who signed up for the service last quarter, it’s likely a good number of them did so to check out Dahmer, and that some stuck around to binge The Watcher. Two success stories aren’t enough to erase the memory of expensive blunders like The Politician, but they’re far better than none. Neither Dahmer nor The Watcher seems fated to drive the culture the way Murder House revived the anthology format, or the first season of American Crime Story kicked off a tsunami of ’90s revisionism. With metrics this good, though, replaying the hits may be more than enough.