“Vanity of Vanities”

“Do what thou wilt.” (Aleister Crowley, occultist)

“To thine own self be true.” (Hamlet, Shakespeare)

“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man …Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another … Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.” (Romans 1:22-26a)

What do these three ideas have in common? They are the underlying philosophies to the show Nip/Tuck. Riding the post-Sopranos wave of shows acting like they’ve discovered profanity and nudity in order to be seen as relevant and edgy, FX has just finished airing the first season of Nip/Tuck. Debuting to the fifth largest ratings for a basic cable show, FX continues to make a name for itself with another show in the same mold as The Shield (arguably the best show on television, one that also explores the moral ambiguities of a fundamentally corrupt cast). While it may aim to only be a bawdy, nighttime soap opera, a poor man’s Six Feet Under on Viagra, it puts a mirror to American culture and its unnatural predilection with beauty.

Dr. Christian Troy, played with cardboard charm, oozes smugness and unbridled egotism. His downward spiral to ever more degrading depths provides the spark of the show. Not since Ted Danson on Cheers has sex addiction been given so much play. He routinely seduces his patients, trading sex for free surgery. He’s willing to do anything for profit, including get in bed (metaphorically speaking) with drug lords. His idea of being a role model for his friend’s children: taking Matt McNamara to a strip club to give him confidence with women. And in a later episode, he takes him to a porn party where he contracts an STD. Only after taking a strong look at the trail of shattered lives and trashed feelings in his wake does he even wake up to the fact of the type of person he is.

Dr. Sean McNamara is the opposite side of the same coin. Neurotic and judgmental, he’s just as smug and self-centered as his partner, whether he realizes it or not. He tries to hold his disintegrating (because of his absenteeism due to his practice) marriage together through tepid displays of communication and affection. A too little, too late policy undermined by 1) his assumption that his wife is having an affair (which she was tempted to do) and 2) his using that assumption to rationalize his own affair.

But they love the children.

While the youngest child, his daughter, has no role other than to look cute on occasion, the older one, his teenage son, can’t escape the over the top plotlines. He becomes convinced that he’d lose his virginity if he were circumsized. Of course his second sex act involves the dilemma of a three-some with his oh-by-the-way-did-I-mention-I-was-also-a-lesbian-girlfriend.

The show explores the values of physical perfection, takes special delight with its (can we spell “misogynistic”?) cruelty. One scene in particularly stands out: when Christian takes a permanent marker to draw on a (nude) woman to illustrate her areas of imperfection. The show has a lot of shock for shock’s sake. Explicit sex, pushing the boundaries first mapped by NYPD Blue. Explicit gore, mostly found in their graphic surgery depictions. And explicit language, though even ER has had the reins loosened on their language. The unwritten rule is that quality justifies the excesses. But even through the muck heap of excesses, light can shine through.

The Consequences of Living in a Moral Vacuum

I have had this ongoing debate, albeit, mostly with myself, about whether this show has a moral center, or if the point of the show was to illustrate what happens when you have no moral center. The problem for our protagonists is that everything–the trappings of wealth, beauty, unlimited sex, peer respect–leaves nothing but ashes in their mouth.

Near the end of the season, a three episode story arc ran that encapsulated not only the problem with the characters in the show but the answer to their various dilemmas, if pursued. At this point in the show, Sean McNamara was elbow deep in an affair, pursuing what he was missing in his marriage. Julia McNamara was being tempted by her own possible affair. This left Matt McNamara with his only other adult role model being Christian Troy, who at the time was negotiating a trade of his current girlfriend for a colleague’s Lamborgini.

The episode arc opens with Matt and his Jewish friend, Henry, getting high while discussing God. Henry can’t light his bong because it was the Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and the Law says that he cannot do any work, in this case, lighting the match. Matt wonders whether obeying these rules of conduct mattered, to which Henry says that “God doesn=t give a sh-t” about lighting a match, but he believes that if he obeys he will lead a “happy life and survive.”
Then on their way home, they perpetrate a hit and run.

Their victim turns out to be Cara Fitzgerald, a Christian Scientist and the founder of their school’s Christian Fellowship Prayer Club. Matt and Henry struggle with their sin and their choice to cover it up. After Matt convinces his father to perform pro bono reconstructive surgery, over Cara’s mother’s protestations, the duo join the Prayer Club (its only members) to find out what Cara remembers. Henry agonizes over his need to pay for what he has done, which he religion calls for. So he mulls over the possibility of changing religions, recognizing that he needs “a new faith, a new identity. One that reflects the real world we live in.” A faith where even bad things can be used to a good end.

“Does your God forgive criminals?” Henry asks Cara.
“We’re all sinners saved through Christ. So I guess the answer is yes.”

Off comes the yarmulke as Henry believes that everything happened so that he could discover the Kingdom of Heaven (though Cara ends up liking Matt over him, so Henry turns his back on his newly discovered faith. He goes back to Judaism and his need to confess and pay for what they’ve done).

Matt, also not knowing what to do with the burden of his act and seeing Cara and her mother’s faith, confronts his dad about why he wasn’t raised with any religious background. What was it that so overwhelmed the boys? The realization that they could lie to everyone around them, but they could neither lie nor hide from God, leaving them with the need to confess.

So the question could still be debated about whether or not the show has a mora
l center or if it is deliberately portraying how meaningless the beauty, wealth, unchecked sex, and circumstantial highs are. Because each character, once they had all of what society defines as the hallmarks of success, realized how unhappy they were and what truly mattered was relationships.