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Ryan Murphy’s Love Affair with New Orleans, from ‘Coven’ to ‘American Crime Story’

Ryan Murphy's Love Affair with New Orleans, from 'Coven' to 'American Crime Story'

As any self-respecting ghost-tour guide will tell you, “American Horror Story: Coven” was not filmed at the imposing French Quarter mansion of sadistic slaveowner Delphine LaLaurie (played by Kathy Bates)—the third season of FX’s creepy, campy anthology series settled instead for the house next door. But the decision to shoot ‘Coven’ and the subsequent, Florida-set ‘Freak Show’ on location in New Orleans, with its lucrative tax incentives for film and television production, speaks to more than creator Ryan Murphy’s financial acumen. As he prepares to examine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the second season of “American Crime Story,” it’s clear that the writer/director is in the midst of a love affair with The City That Care Forgot.

READ MORE: “Review: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show,’ Ryan Murphy’s Sublime Circus Act” 

Though “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” (FX) doesn’t premiere until February 2, the second season, focused on the days following Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the levee system, and the inundation of New Orleans, is already in the works. The plan is to start production in the fall, with six to eight main characters from several walks of life. (“O.J. Simpson” writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski won’t be back, and there’s no word yet on whether production would take place in Louisiana.) “I want this show to be a socially conscious, socially
aware examination of different types of crime around the world,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter. “And in my
opinion, Katrina was a f—ing crime—a crime against a lot of people who didn’t
have a strong voice, and we’re going to treat it as a crime. That’s what this
show is all about.”

Coming so soon after the tenth anniversary of the storm, which has been the subject of David Simon’s “Treme” (HBO) and numerous documentaries, including Spike Lee’s humane opus “When the Levees Broke,” one would forgive residents and other interested parties for rolling their eyes at Murphy’s premise. (See Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives” for a finely wrought networked narrative of the post-Katrina city.) No one wants the only tale told of their hometown to be a tragedy. But “Coven” showed, if nothing else, Murphy’s interest in the city’s rougher edges and worst excesses, layering together several periods from its topsy-turvy past as if to suggest simultaneity. He preternaturally understands the feeling of walking through the Quarter on a foggy night and feeling yourself in the modern world and an antiquated one at the same time. 

READ MORE: “10 Years After Katrina, ‘Treme’ and the Transformation of New Orleans”

New Orleans suits the melodramatist in Murphy, the city’s masquerades, parades, and puckish outlook a fine fit for the heady brew of horror and black comedy that marks “AHS” at its best. Less clear is whether he has (or needs) the delicate touch that true-life stories often demand. On one hand, the notion of Murphy tackling Hurricane Katrina sends a shiver down my spine; I can imagine an ugly wallop of capital-P Politics in place of a compelling narrative, which was what sunk “Freak Show” after a strong start. On the other hand, Murphy wrangled the words of Larry Kramer into the corporeal power of “The Normal Heart” (HBO), and managed to transform one of the most insane subplots in recent memory—the appearance of Anne Frank on “AHS: Asylum”—into an unnervingly novel investigation of identity, performance, trauma, and the nature of evil.

I suppose what gives me hope, living a block from the LaLaurie estate, is knowing that Murphy, from “Coven” to “American Crime Story,” is invested in New Orleans not only as a place but also as an ongoing subject. To live here is to experience the city’s boundlessly fascinating, totally weird, thoroughly imperfect wonders—which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad way of describing Murphy’s work in television. A match made in heaven, indeed.

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