At this point in his career, Ryan Murphy can pretty much get any project made. But that was not always the case for the Glee and American Horror Story creator. In this week’s EW cover story, Murphy talks about selling his first TV series, Popular, to The WB and how it quickly became a “miserable experience” due to battles with network executives over the content of the series.
Murphy had been trying to sell screenplays when his agent encouraged him to turn the feature script for Popular into a series. “It was a complete satire using the device of cheerleaders to really look at female ambition,” he says. “Kevin Williamson had just sold Dawson’s Creek and my agent at the time said, ‘I think maybe you would like television. Why don’t we try this as a TV show?’ And I went around and I pitched it. The four networks wanted it. And I ended up going with The WB.”
The series, which became a cult hit after only two seasons from 1999 to 2001, became a battle point between Murphy and the network. He admits: “They never got me and they kept trying to turn me into something else. And they were very homophobic even though they would have gay characters on the air.”
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Murphy adds: “They would give me notes, like, ‘The Mary Cherry character, like, could she be less gay?’ Like, it was very relentlessly homophobic.’ It was rough and I didn’t have a good experience with the studio and everybody.”
But he admits, like many things in his career, Popular was another lesson. “You know in the first year they really left me alone and they hadn’t meddled with me yet,” he remembers. “And in the second year it was like us and Roswell and they thought it could be a hit. So I remember getting notes, like, ‘Can this character get cancer?’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ But I wanted it to work so I did the notes and thus I ended up jeopardizing my own sensibility and it got cancelled after year two. But it was a really important experience for me because what I learned is follow your gut, listen to your voice, and if they don’t want your voice, they don’t want you.”
Asked about Murphy’s comments, a source who was at the network at the time said they were “surprised” by the remarks. “I don’t recall that being our POV towards the series,” the source said. “We absolutely loved Ryan personally and were bewitched by his incredibly unique voice. I am crestfallen to learn that he wasn’t comfortable during that time and worst of all that he considered us homophobic. We took great pride in the groundbreaking portrayal of gay characters on our network as it represented the lives of so many writers, directors, actors and executives working at the WB who were gay themselves along with members of our audience. While I thought our relationship with Ryan was strong both during and well after Popular, nobody should feel the way he felt and if we were unwittingly responsible for that to any degree I’m deeply saddened. We’ve been so proud of what Ryan has gone on to accomplish and have always been rooting for him to fulfill his creative ambitions.”