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Inside Ryan Murphy’s Secretive–and Totally Unstoppable–True Crime Empire

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It’s hard to believe, but in the weeks leading up to the premiere of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, there was some concern. It wasn’t overwhelming and it didn’t overshadow the great anticipation and excitement for the beloved team of actors (John TravoltaSarah PaulsonDavid Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian for Pete’s sake!) to take on the story of a lifetime. 

But this show was to come from Ryan Murphy, the man who was heretofore known as the king of camp. He brought audiences Glee and American Horror Story and Scream Queens. A person doesn’t need to have spent much onscreen time with William McKinley High School to know that its renditions of “Teenage Dream” were, well, amusing. Critics and viewers were wondering how Murphy was going to tackle the story of Simpson’s acquittal.

Paulson herself has acknowledged that there was some slight skepticism ahead of the premiere, while getting candid with E! News at the show’s finale screening last year. 

“A lot of people say that,” she acknowledged of worry over the camp factor. “But I think nothing more could be at stake. Two people’s lives, to quote Marcia, were snuffed out, and I think everybody [on the show] took it very, very seriously.” 

And as soon as the show premiered, that was completely evident. The very first episode set an FX record, with the highest-ever viewership for an original drama—over five million people watched the premiere. Its audience began to climb higher and higher each week as word spread about its bingeability. It ended its season as cable’s most-watched new show of 2016 and FX’s top rated new series ever. 

The People v. O.J. Simpson was a hit with the critics as well, receiving glowing reviews and a whopping 90% rating on Metacritic. And then came award season. The Golden Globes were first, with five nominations rolling in—the show picked up two wins, Best Television Limited Series and a Best Actress for Paulson. Nine months later American Crime Story nominated the Emmys, picking up a whopping 22 nominations, including Best Director and a nod for almost every actor on the show. They won five of those awards and the entire night felt like a dedication to the show’s hard work.

The success of the first installment of American Crime Story not only shut down any would-be skeptics, it put Ryan Murphy on the map as one of the foremost tellers of real-life crime stories. In a pop culture environment that sees a new true crime series or documentary pop up almost weekly it’s especially impressive to stand out from the crowd. Critics and fans alike began looking at Murphy differently, realizing that he has a layer of insight and sensitivity that didn’t always come across in his previous shows, fabulous and addicting as they were. But it’s never been about just Ryan Murphy. 

The People v. O.J. Simpson did wonders for its large and eclectic cast. It revived careers that had gone dark in recent years and it made stars out of its bright new talent. It had been years since viewers had seen John Travolta on the main stage and David Schwimmer had been largely out of the acting spotlight since his time on Friends. Suddenly there they were, Emmy nominees and the stars of one of the most popular shows of the year. And then there’s the heartwarmingly awesome story of Sterling K. Brown‘s lightning speed come-up. 

When the show premiered back in the winter of 2016, the actor who was to play the (very difficult) part of prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden was still a veritable unknown in Hollywood. He had appeared on numerous primetime television shows like NYPD Blue and The Good Wife (and starred in the Lifetime series Army Wives) but hadn’t quite had that role that shot him to superstardom. Enter O.J. By the time the first few episodes aired, Brown had piqued the interest of critics and viewers alike. By the time the first season wrapped he was arguably the most beloved member of the cast. And now that we’re well entrenched into our national obsession with This Is Us, his star power is off the charts. 

With Crime Story, much like with his previous series American Horror Story, Murphy has amassed a group of actors who would follow him to the ends of the Earth to play out these true crime stories. The director/writer/producer described it to E! News recently as a “troupe,” a rotating cast who will dip in and dip out of different seasons pending on their availability. His stars have made no secret of their devotion to Murphy, with Sarah Paulson even admitting that she “begged” him to be a part of American Crime Story. This is the group who is helping him build his new empire. 

And what an empire it is. Fresh off the success of the first installment, the Crime Story series already has three new seasons in the works. Season two will be focused on the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was shot dead in front of his Miami Beach mansion with a motive that is still unknown to this day. The show is being actually being filmed at the very same house in which the murders were committed—it’s now a 10-room luxury hotel. 

The cast is shaping up to be red-hot as well: Edgar Ramirez is playing Versace himself, Penélope Cruz is tackling Donatella, Max Greenfield (of AHS) will play Gianni’s older brother, Ricky Martinwill be featured in his first-ever gay role as Versace’s longtime partner and Darren Criss (a longtime Murphy devotee) will play killer Andrew Cunanan. 

Season three of ACS will take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction in wrought on New Orleans. Much of the plot is still hush-hush, but all signs are pointing to the fact that the subject matter will reshape the way most Americans remember the natural disaster. 

“I keep saying this line about the next season, if the People v. O.J. is a 200-foot yacht, the Katrina story we’re telling is a cruise ship,” Cuba Gooding, Jr. told E! News at this spring’s Upfront event. “It’s a cruise liner in scope, in execution and especially in emotion. The producing team of Ryan, Nina [Jacobsen] and Brad [Falchuk], they’re going to put together a spectacle that’s going to shock the nation to the core.”

Murphy will be shooting the Versace and Katrina seasons nearly simultaneously—once the first five episodes of Versace are complete he’ll move right on to Versace—but he’s also well into the process of planning for the show’s fourth season: Recreating the Bill Clinton sex scandal. But don’t expect this to be an exploitative drama that focuses on what went down in the oval office. 

“It’s a very interesting look at that story and it’s based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book,” Murphy told E!’s Kristin Dos Santos. “The book is about a rise of a certain segment of a right wing group of people who despised the Clintons and used three women—Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp—to try and tear him down.” 

Many people began speculating that Sarah Paulson would be taking on the role of Hillary, and while she will be in the Clinton installment of the series, she will not be playing the former First Lady. In fact, it’s possible that no one will play her.

“There are a lot of bizarre crimes within the Bill Clinton story that you could highlight, but this will really be about the other women,” Murphy continued. “In fact we might be doing the Clintons with hand puppets, who knows. We’re more focused on the machinations behind the scenes to try to get Bill impeached.” 

That fourth season is slated to begin shooting at the end of the year, further expanding Murphy’s impressive true crime reign. He has created quite an impressing niche aimed at exposing great criminal injustices, and we can all expect that to continue with each passing season—most likely with a few more Emmys as well. Not that statues are the point, of course. As Gooding, Jr. put it to E! News, Murphy has a far more altruistic aim for his empire. 

“With any moment in history, be it some tragedy in Syria or the Holocaust or anything that is an injustice to humanity,” he said of the series’ many controversial topics. “We pray that we never forget so that we don’t repeat.”

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