From high school dreams to American screams

Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy has unleashed his dark side, as Sarah Hughes discovers

Most people find working on one television show to be an exhausting affair; however, most people are not Ryan Murphy.

The co-creator of Glee is currently juggling three shows – in addition to Glee itself (currently airing its third season on Sky) he is heavily involved in its reality spin-off The Glee Project while new drama American Horror Story, which starts on FX tonight, has been one of the surprise successes of the US television season.

Murphy is also involved with a film adaptation of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's award-winning Broadway play about the Aids epidemic, and co-writing a half-hour comedy with Allison Adler for NBC about a gay couple's attempts to start a family.

"The thing is I just want to do the opposite of what I've done before," Murphy says. "It's like dating – you know if you're going to fall in love then change it up a bit. When I wrote Glee, I was coming off [plastic surgery drama] Nip/Tuck and I really wanted to be happy because I felt like everything was getting too dark.

"Then after two seasons of Glee it felt as though that was too much sweetness and I needed to change that up so [long-term writing partner] Brad [Falchuk] and I pitched American Horror Story, which we'd actually been working on three years before Glee, because now the time felt right for that. Now the new sitcom is going to be a really sweet half-hour comedy about a subject matter that's very close to my own life and that I feel passionate about."

That said, Murphy won't be abandoning the dark-hearted American Horror Story any time soon. The story of an unfaithful psychologist, his grieving wife, their moody daughter and the extremely creepy house that they move to in order to start afresh might not have been a Glee-style breakout hit but its combination of clever horror references, knowing one-liners and genuine chills has seen the ratings increase each week. The fourth episode pulled in three million viewers in America.

Murphy and Falchuk are aided by a strong cast including a scene-stealing Jessica Lange as the very steely magnolia next door.

"I've been obsessed with Jessica since I was a kid and my favourite performance ever is her turn as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire," Murphy says. "When we were writing Constance, in my mind she was how Blanche would have turned out had she been stronger so I sent the script to Jessica. Then I spent weeks begging her to do it because she's never done TV before. Luckily, she agreed, as it turns out she's hilarious. We've changed part of the character in response to how funny she can be."

As to Glee, Murphy remains sanguine about the criticism thrown at the show last season – "We got a lot of flak for the themed episodes but those were also the highest rated," he says – and claims to be unconcerned by the fact that a more stripped-down third season has seen lower ratings and fewer record sales.

"The Broadway music lends itself to the story we're telling," he says. "It's important that the music reflects the storyline and it's not as though we don't still have some big songs."

And while the two shows are very different on the surface, Murphy argues that they are more similar than you might imagine. "Everything that Brad and I have done has a lot of emotion and charge and feels very heightened," he says. "Glee's not the real world, it's the world that we wish we lived in and American Horror Story is the world that we're terrified we might be living in."

'American Horror Story' starts on FX tonight at 10pm. 'Glee' airs on Sky One, Thursdays at 9pm

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