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Nip/Tuck: Goodbye – and Good Riddance!

By Christopher Gildemeister



Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 saw the final episode of a program that has defined the FX network’s – and the entertainment industry’s -- approach to television programming: Nip/Tuck. But while the series did boost FX’s reputation and visibility, taking the cable network from a movie-rerun channel to one famed for its original series, the show’s effect on entertainment generally has been corrosive and nothing less than disastrous.  


Incessant profanity, frequent displays of naked breasts, nudity, explicit sexual activity, severed heads, maggot-infested corpses, burn and crash victims, and literally hundreds of instances of hideously graphic and gory surgery combined with a sensibility that found amusement value in stories about incest, necrophilia, bestiality, child molestation, and a season-long arc devoted to a serial rapist who mutilates his victims, to form a revolting cocktail of perversity – one which has had a lethal effect on television entertainment as a whole.


Fans of FX’s programming love to claim that the unbelievably explicit sex, violence, and profanity present in the network’s shows make them far more “realistic” than the pap on broadcast TV. Yet such an argument can be seen as ridiculous with only a moment’s thought. For if the world presented in Nip/Tuck is “realistic,” then the typical, average American can expect to encounter the following phenomena on a daily basis:


A victim of female circumcision victim having her clitoris surgically rebuilt (after which a lesbian teaches her how to masturbate); a woman who has her vaginal lips transplanted onto her mouth; a pornographic movie actress who manufactures a realistic sex doll of herself, becoming vastly wealthy in the process; a morbidly obese woman who has become grafted to her couch; fraternity members who superglue their faces to another boy’s rear end; a woman who, out of fear of contracting breast cancer, hacks off her own breast with a carving knife; a patient with “body integrity disorder,” who wants his healthy leg amputated; a man with Down’s syndrome who wants plastic surgery, so he can “look normal” (Hollywood, that bastion of progressive “diversity,” loves to glamorize rebels, but let someone be different by having a physical abnormality like Down’s syndrome, and Hollywood mocks them for being “different” and unattractive -- as recently shown by Fox’s Family Guy); a woman who wants a facial transplant so that she can resemble a porn starlet her husband admires; an unattractive, masochistic woman who enjoys being anally raped while forced to wear a bag over her head; a schoolteacher who “fell in love” with a student when he was 13, then married him (but who leaves him for his 16-year-old brother); a woman whose nipple is bitten off while she is having sex with her dog; a woman who asks for her cremated lover’s ashes to be placed in her breast implants; a transsexual who began life as a man, underwent surgery to become a woman, realized he/she is actually a gay man and has his penis reconstructed, and finally ends up as a man with a penis AND female breast implants; a man suffering from infected bite marks from his dominatrix; a woman who tranquillizes and immerses herself in ice water so that she can be “brought back to life” by having sex; a pre-school teacher who acts out a sexual fetish by biting her students; a man addicted to auto-fellatio; a woman who wants surgery on her face to make her resemble a cat; a woman who insists on her male lovers wearing diapers; a man with “object sexuality disorder,” who has sex with furniture; a pair of vampire role-players who drink one another’s blood while having sex; a man with a genetic disease that causes him to blurt out profanities and chew off his own lips and hands; a woman with fifty-pound breasts; a couple who want to imitate Barbie and Ken by having their nipples removed; a father-son team who perform incestuous sex shows for paying customers; a blind lawyer who insists on his customers masturbating in front of him as they describe what they are doing; a model who wants plastic surgery to make herself unattractive; a man who practices auto-erotic asphyxiation; and, of course, a lonely funeral home worker who decapitates his deceased sister, saves her head, then sews together other corpses to form a body for it – after which he has incestuous necrophiliac sex with the corpse.


After reading this soul-crushing litany of depravity – every example of which was portrayed on an episode of Nip/Tuck -- two things are clear: firstly, that Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy and his staff wrote their scripts with a welter of extreme pornographic websites bookmarked on their computers, and a copy of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at their elbow; and secondly, that Nip/Tuck bears absolutely no resemblance to real life.   


Murphy would no doubt call this satire, the word most often used (indeed, overused – see Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, et cetera) to defend the portrayal of any and every socially deviant practice.  But for a supposed satire, Nip/Tuck is all too approving of the lifestyle it displays.


On Nip/Tuck, Hollywood values dominate. Every character is hopelessly shallow, obsessed with sex, drugs, and appearances. Indeed, Nip/Tuck revels in the mindless pursuit of money and sex. The program’s signature character is the oh-so-ironically-named Christian, whose behavior is anything but. Christian obsessively beds any and every woman who crosses his path. Over the course of the series, it is revealed that the character has had sex with Gina (whom he met at a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting, and who attempts to get pregnant by inviting all the men from her SA group to have sex with her in a gigantic orgy); various mother-daughter duos simultaneously; his lesbian friend Liz;  his best friend’s wife Julia, on the night before their wedding; Julia’s mother, on the day of Julia’s wedding; porn star/fiancée/ex-lover/wife Kimber; after Kimber’s death, Kimber’s mother; and literally thousands of one-night (or ten-minute) stands. Apparently, in Ryan Murphy’s mind it is normal for a man to have sex with every woman he encounters -- AND with each of those women’s mothers.


Christian’s behavior is explained by a plot twist presumably meant to be tragic: Christian’s biological father was a rapist and serial killer; his mother gave him up for adoption; and his adopted father and brother sexually molested him as a child. While there is some lip service given to the truth that being sexually molested robs a child of innocence and can destroy their future life, self-image and personality, in actual fact the show treats this background as a minor inconvenience. The program is too busy holding up Christian as a glamorous, enviable figure -- he’s rich, handsome, and has sex with every woman he desires – to bother with considering the real ramifications of such a background or lifestyle.


This is one of Nip/Tuck’s greatest failings. It is pathetic that in the midst of so much depravity, so little attention is given to the genuine consequences of uncontrolled behavior. A genuine drama, written by a genuine artist, could utilize the same themes for a serious, moving meditation on the nature of pain and the need for greater restraint and concern for others in society. But like a colossal freak show, Nip/Tuck, throws out a few crumbs along these lines, then merrily dashes off to see the next zany train wreck waiting to happen. And little Christian does has any lasting consequence, since, in Ryan Murphy’s world, every receptionist, every nanny, and every therapist (especially every therapist – nearly every therapist/”life coach” shown on Nip/Tuck is a manipulative sex addict more warped than their patients) is eager only to have sex; intimacy consists of a man having sex with another woman while his lover watches; and everyone inconveniencing an individual – whether a high-school principal, an IRS agent, or a police investigator -- can be bought off, either with sex or with free plastic surgery.


But most worrisome – because it reveals Ryan Murphy’s attitudes toward adolescence – is the show’s treatment of its character Matt. Christian’s and Julia’s biological son (raised by Sean), Matt is apparently Ryan Murphy’s idea of a typical teenage boy. Yet what teenager has experiences like Matt’s?


In the course of the first season, Matt is given a condom by Sean; taken to a strip club by Christian, so that he can have his virginity taken by a prostitute; attempts to circumcise himself; has a threesome with two high-school girls (one a lesbian); receives oral sex from a “fluffer” on the set of a pornographic movie; and smokes pot with his friend, whereupon they drive recklessly and horrifically maim a classmate (though Matt does not admit what he has done, nor does he stop using drugs because of it). In subsequent seasons, he is seduced by his therapist Ava – after he is caught by police masturbating while peeping in her window. (Ava it later turns out, is a transgender woman, formerly a man, who has committed incest with his/her own son.) In later seasons, Matt assaults a pre-operative transsexual, who then gathers a gang of her friends to beat and urinate on Matt in revenge; becomes involved with a neo-pagan white supremacist; is forced at gunpoint to cut off another transsexual’s penis; marries porn star Kimber, who had previously been the lover of both his Sean and Christian, and gets her pregnant; makes a porn movie with her; becomes a meth addict and a “bottom” in gay porn films; sets himself on fire; has incestuous sex with Christian’s daughter; dresses as a mime and robs convenience stores at gunpoint; and, finally, becomes engaged to a decent, normal girl – only to leave her at the altar for the manipulative Ava. 


These examples are of concern, because Ryan Murphy has taken this sensibility from Nip/Tuck, a niche cable show intended only for adults, to a broad-based, prime-time broadcast hit show – one lauded by many for its allegedly family-friendly messages: the wildly popular Glee on Fox. Ryan Murphy’s philosophy towards adolescence -- a philosophy which is now being carried out on Glee – can be seen by examining Murphy’s attitude toward adolescent characters on Nip/Tuck. In one early episode, teenager Matt dismisses his having sex with two girls simultaneously with the words, “We were having sex, just like every other teenager in the world. With a condom Dad gave me.” In another, Matt’s grandmother Erica (while smoking marijuana with her grandson) lectures Matt on his right – even his responsibility – to engage in promiscuous sex:


“That's what's so wonderful about being young.  There are no mistakes, only research…if you're so appalled by your own feelings that you deny their existence, they'll run your tight little a** for the rest of your repressed middle-brow life.  Do you want a safe life, or an authentic one?"


This same philosophy is reflected on Glee. The teenage leader of the school’s “abstinence club” not only engages in sex, but becomes pregnant by one boy while claiming another is the father. By contrast, the show’s heroine lectures all the abstinent teens on the necessity for them to obtain birth control and have sex.  In Ryan Murphy’s world, sixteen-year-olds who delay sexual activity are “tight-a****” phonies, while teens who smoke pot, engage in threesomes, and sleep with transsexuals are “authentic.”


To Murphy -- and the entertainment industry generally -- the only “authentic” life consists of having any and every kind of sex, utterly devoid of all gentleness, emotion, or sense of responsibility. And while many might say that Glee is “just a TV show,” without influence over its viewers, the number of downloads of the music featured on Glee – and the relentless promotion of the program in which Fox engaged, previewing it at last year’s Teen Choice Awards – tell a different story.


Finally, there is the effect that Nip/Tuck has had on the entertainment industry as a whole. Whenever a program “pushes the envelope,” jaded critics invariably laud it for doing so…and others in the industry take notice, and strive for critical and professional accolades of their own by slavishly imitating the success by repeatedly violating the newly-broken boundary, until it crumbles and gives way. Recall the appearance of a naked rear on NYPD Blue. Those who complained about this were condemned as hopelessly puritanical; yet since that boundary was crossed, naked rears and even naked breasts (with nipples blurred or concealed) have become commonplace on TV.


So too with Nip/Tuck. This show’s foul language, explicit displays of sex and nudity, and horrifically graphic violence undeniably paved the way for such other FX programs as Sons of Anarchy, and arguably for programs like Showtime’s Dexter as well. Worse, they now serve to lower the bar for other programs, and challenge others in the industry to produce even more explicit and disturbing entertainment. As Ryan Murphy himself noted during the 2007 Television Critics Association tour, “Television is a thing where some doors have to be pushed open and, once those doors are pushed open, other people will follow.” But where exactly these newly-opened doors will lead America’s children, culture, and future should be of concern to us all.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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