“Nip/Tuck”‘s Gay Paradox

Which of the following two statements is true about the show Nip/Tuck, which has its fifth season finale tonight on FX?

Created by the openly
gay Ryan Murphy,
Nip/Tuck is one of the
most gay-inclusive shows on television, seamlessly integrating scores of gay
characters into its storylines and featuring many openly gay actors in both gay
and non-gay roles.

Nip/Tuck features a
never-ending parade of hoary gay stereotypes, with over-the-top characters that
often seem to have been created specifically to shock or offend, or at least
with little regard to how they might be reinforcing prevailing negative media
images of gay and bi men.

Weirdly, both statements are true. But how can that be? How
can one of television’s most gay-inclusive shows also feature such negative
portrayals of gay and bisexual men, especially given that it was created and is
still overseen by a gay man?

Therein lies the gay paradox at the heart of Nip/Tuck: one of the most gay-friendly
shows on television seems at times to be one of the least gay-friendly.

(Warning: some clips contain language that may not be appropriate for work.)

Physicians Not Healing
Themselves

From the beginning, Nip/Tuck
was something different.

The Fox cable channel FX, which stands for ”Fox Extreme,”
made a big splash with their first foray into original programming with The Shield, a gritty 2002 cop drama. Nip/Tuck, their second all-original
show, came a little over a year later and was clearly an attempt to not just build
on that success, but to firmly brand the network as the place to go for provocative,
edgy fare.

In retrospect, Nip/Tuck
seems like a picture perfect attempt to call attention to itself, a Simpson’s parody of an edgy TV show: explicit
sex scenes of every imaginable variety, gore as graphic as anything even on
subscription cable, and shocking storylines often ripped straight from the
headlines. As the seasons passed, the show also snagged more and more high
profile guest stars willing and eager to send up their own media images.

Creator Ryan Murphy, who has been the show’s sole showrunner
for each of its five seasons, declined to be interviewed for this article, but
in 2005, he told The Hollywood Reporter,
"I think the great thing about our show is that every year we push the
boundaries of what television does.”

But the most shocking element of the show has never been the
graphic sex or gore; it’s the fact that the main characters were almost unrelentingly
negative.

Nip/Tuck is a show
about plastic surgery — about the team of two plastic surgeons, Christian and
Sean, and the patients they transform. “What don’t you like about yourself?” is
the show’s catchphrase, spoken by the doctors at the start of every episode.
But one of the great ironies of the show is that changing a person’s exterior often
doesn’t make any difference on the interior, which is usually where the real
problem lies.

Is Nip/Tuck anti-gay? Some gay
people think it is. “Whenever I write anything nice about Nip/Tuck, I get plenty of comments and emails from gay folks,
saying, ‘How can you say anything nice about such an anti-gay show?’” said
AfterElton editor Michael Jensen.

But the reality of Nip/Tuck
is more complicated than that. As with every patient who goes in for or emerges
from plastic surgery, what we see on the surface isn’t necessarily a reflection of what is
underneath.

Christian (Julian McMahon), Sean (Dylan Walsh)

Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), one-half of the plastic surgeon partnership, is a sadistic,
misogynistic narcissist and a pathological liar. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh), the other
partner, pretends to be ethical, but is pathetically insecure and quick to make
moral compromises. Meanwhile, Sean’s wife Julia (Joely Richardson) is, at least at first, a
stifled, furious sell-out of a housewife, and their brooding son Matt (John Hensley) is so
lacking in an identity that he latches on to whoever showed him the slightest
amount of attention.

Next Page: seducing a gay soldier!

Nip/Tuck took the
prevailing TV paradigm at the time to “make the main characters sympathetic”
and totally subverted it, featuring people who were chronically, almost comically
selfish and self-absorbed. In one of the show’s reoccurring themes, Nip/Tuck’s main characters are all beautiful
on the outside, but then show by their actions that, on the inside, they’re
shocking ugly.

Chrisitian, Julia, Sean

"I fell in love with the show two years ago," said out actor Jack
Plotnick, who guested on the show this season as the Ass Bandit. "I really try to limit my TV-watching, so I fast forward through shows and only stop at scenes where it looks like something insane is happening. But with Nip/Tuck, especially this season, I soon realized that all the scenes are insane. So I’ve stopped fast-forwarding that show completely."

How is it that these characters go from outrageous situation to outrageous situation, never really changing or learn
from their mistakes? Like ancient Greek heroes with fatal flaws, it’s in their
nature. They are plastic surgeons, after all, condemned to deal only with
surface issues, and incapable of changing what’s real, what’s inside.

Still, audiences know when they’re seeing something
different, and no one had ever seen anything like Nip/Tuck before. If the point of the show was to call attention to
itself, it worked. By the end of its first season, it was the highest rated
series on basic cable.

Liz (Roma Maffia)

Acid-Tongued Gay Best Friends and Bisexual Serial Killers
On a show that never met a taboo it didn’t highlight and
underline with a bright red marker, it was only a matter of time before Nip/Tuck dealt with gay issues. Lesbian
issues were featured in the first season, with shots of teenage girls kissing
and the revelation that Liz (Roma Maffia), the surgeons’ anesthesiologist and the only
character on the show with any sort of moral compass, is a lesbian. And two first
season episodes featured transgender storylines, including one, “Sophia Lopez,”
that snagged the show its only GLAAD Media Award nomination, for Best Drama.

In the second and third season, however, gay and bisexual male characters
moved front and center — usually in violent ways. Christian is raped by a man. Quentin Costa (Bruno Campos),
a reoccurring bisexual character, is introduced to the show, only to seduce a
closeted male soldier and have sex with him in the office.

Quentin Costa (Bruno Campos)

By the end of the third
season, Quentin is revealed to be not just Christian’s rapist, but also The
Carver, a serial killer/maimer in an incestuous relationship with his sister,
and a person who is also intersexual (born with characteristics of both sexes),
one of TV’s first portrayals of an intersexual ever.

Next page: Oliver
Platt goes really, really gay!

In Nip/Tuck’s latest
season, we learned what, in part, has driven teenage psychopath/nymphomaniac
Eden Lord to the depths of her vileness: the catty comments of her gay best
friend Chaz Darling, played by Queer
Eye’s
Jai Rodriguez, a judgmental body Nazi.

Christian, Chaz

And as more minor gay male characters began to pepper the
show, they were often used as visual punchlines to jokes, which, in the eyes of
Nip/Tuck’s producers, seemed to
require they be as queeny and stereotypical as possible. When Christian poses
naked in Playgirl in an attempt to
drum up plastic surgery business, it’s not women who show up at the office, but
a string of leering, lisping, ascot-wearing queens.

A Lisping, Mincing Oliver Platt
Then there is the surreal case of Freddy Prune, played by Oliver Platt, the creator
of Hearts N’ Scalpels, Nip/Tuck’s fifth season show-within-a-show
(and a self-referential parody of their own show). The lover of Dawn Budge, a
blunt lottery winner played (to perfection) by Rosie O’Donnell, Freddy reads as
“gay” as one of Samantha’s funny uncles on Bewitched,
and about as contemporary. The wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke, of course, is that
everyone knows he’s gay, except for himself and poor Dawn.

How does Freddy eventually comes to terms with being gay? In typical Nip/Tuck fashion, it’s by
having a finger put in his rectum by Jack Plotnick’s Ass Bandit, who, in a still-unresolved storyline, pretends to be a doctor so he can
digitally rape patients.

"I love the character Oliver Platt plays," Plotnick said. "There are gay men like that. He hits it right on the nose, and he gives it so much heart."

But how has Freddy gone all this time not knowing he’s gay?
And how is that he’s surprised, even in his forties, that some people assume
he’s gay? Since Freddy Prune is just the punchline to multi-episode joke, the
show doesn’t bother taking the character seriously enough to say.

Then again, Freddy Prune, like most of Nip/Tuck’s gay characters, is probably no more stereotypical or
ridiculous than any of the other characters on the show. The whole point of Nip/Tuck is to shock and provoke, and (most
of all) draw attention to itself. After all, women are usually portrayed as
scheming and sex-obsessed, and they often end up getting killed or tortured.
African Americans are often hyper-sexual, and southerners are usually
simpletons.

But lest anyone accuse Nip/Tuck of being hateful toward minorities, keep in mind that its two narcissistic, egocentric straight male
leads aren’t portrayed as “cool” ala a Quentin Tarantino film, but are,
instead, repeatedly shown to be pathetic and ridiculous (though, admittedly,
these straight male characters are not reinforcing existing prejudices about
all men, at least not the same way that the female and minority characters
are).

The point is, to the show’s great credit,
gay people actually exist in the universe of Nip/Tuck, and not just as plastic surgery patients. If they’re
stereotypical, maybe it’s because all the other characters are stereotypes too.

“All the characters are over-the-top and damaged and broad,”
said Damon Romine, Entertainment Media Director for the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, who says that his organization has never received an official complaint about the show. “It’s a soap opera. Nip/Tuck is as much about plastic surgery as Dallas
was about oil.”

Next page: gay for
pay!

Gay (and Straight) for Pay
In its never-ending quest to draw attention to itself, Nip/Tuck has also taken full advantage of its ability to attract big-name guest stars, many of whom often send up their
public images.

The most recent example (episode 5.12, "Lulu Grandiron") included Knot’s Landing’s Joan Van Ark and Donna Mills, Shari Belafonte from
Hotel, and Deborah Shelton from Dallas, as aging Hollywood doyennes with
penchants for plastic surgery — a sly nod to the fact that all four actresses
have clearly had plastic surgery, but also the fact that Nip/Tuck is often just as campy as all those previous nighttime
soap operas.

“It was a great homage,” said GLAAD’s Romine.

Joan Van Ark, Donna Mills

The show has also had fun giving openly gay actors a chance
to tweak their own public images, especially ones that may have risked
typecasting by their admirable decisions to come out.

Christian, Dawn Budge

In addition to having outspoken lesbian Rosie O’Donnell playing
the homophobic Dawn Budge, 1970s heartthrob (and now openly gay) Richard
Chamberlain satirized his own pretty boy image by playing an uber-creepy aging
gay sugar daddy determined to remake his gay-for-pay boy toy in his own image.

Richard Chamberlain as Arthur Stiles, Thad Lukcinbill as Mitchell Skinner

Out
actor Robert Gant, meanwhile, subverted his own work on Queer as Folk by appearing as the very heterosexual boy toy of a
sex-obsessed old woman. You could even argue that Jai Rodriguez’ Wormtongue-like
Chaz Darling was a parody of his gentle,
accepting Queer Eve persona.

Again, on Nip/Tuck,
what you see on the surface is not necessarily a reflection of the truth that
lies underneath. "The person poking fun at us is actually Ryan Murphy, who is gay," Plotnick said. "So he’s actually poking fun at himself."

Next page: Christian
goes gay!


Christian (Almost) Goes Gay

When it comes to gays on Nip/Tuck,
nothing tops the shocking storyline of season four, in which Christian starts to
think he might be gay and in love with Sean. Given that Christian had always been
emphatically heterosexual (not to mention occasionally homophobic), the
storyline was perfectly in keeping with the show’s ongoing theme of how one’s
exterior is no reflection on the interior.

Christian

Over the course of the season, Christian, in a classic case
of projection, first tries to turn a questioning gay guy straight. Then he finds
himself drawn to the sight of a good-looking young plastic surgeon soaping up
in the shower (played by Mario Lopez, the role gave his career its biggest
boost since being cast on Saved By the
Bell
; if Mary Hart insured her legs for a million dollars, Lopez should
consider insuring his ass).

Some viewers were disappointed by the fact that Christian
and Sean didn’t end up together (except in dream sequences), but that was
probably never in the cards. “I thought [what] would be interesting was to do a
love story about two men who are heterosexual,” Murphy told Entertainment Weekly, talking about the whole series, not just the fourth season.

Still, the show “goes there” in a way never before seen on commercial television, especially in extended dream sequence when Christian imagines a “gay” life with Sean, and later when they playfully pretend to be a couple in real life. When Murphy decided to have one of his two male leads spend a whole season thinking he might be gay, it was one of boldest, most
interesting programming decisions in decades.

"Come on!" Plotnick said. "A lead character questions whether he’s gay! It’s incredible! And then in this season, Julia goes lesbian?"

Meanwhile, while season four playfully sends up the looks-conscious
gay community, or at least Christian’s impression of it, it never has Christian
consider that his same-sex feelings for Sean are the result of the years of
abuse he suffered by his foster father, revealed in the show’s first season, or
the rape he endured at the end of season two. Here is one Rubicon — the idea that
gayness is caused by sexual abuse — that, incredibly, even Nip/Tuck wasn’t willing to cross.


Angry Parents and Prickly Gays: Together at Last

From its debut, Nip/Tuck
has inspired controversy. The Parents Television Council recently mounted an
advertiser boycott. And gay viewers are often just as outraged.

So far,
none of the criticism has had an impact. "We never think about any of that
when the show is in production," Murphy told a gathering of television
critics last summer. "And for every advertiser that left, another one
stepped in. We’ve never made any apologies for content. This is a 10 o’clock show,
and there are viewer warning labels all over it. There are always going to be
people who don’t like what you do, particularly if you’re taking chances."

Next Page: Is Nip/Tuck anti-gay?

But is there any truth to the accusations that the show is anti-gay?
From the start, Nip/Tuck was a show
about appearances, about image, and about how what’s underneath does not
necessarily match what’s outside.

"At the heart of it, the show is about why people hate
themselves and how they are put in a box by others and by themselves,"
Murphy told The Advocate. "Gay
people can certainly relate to that in the looks classism that exists."

Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, Julian McMahon, and Dylan Walsh

Seen this way, the Freddy Prune character might be perfectly
in sync with the theme of the show, despite Oliver Platt’s affected
performance (though it does seem like it might have been objectively more
interesting, rather than have a man discover he’s gay by being digitally raped,
to have an effeminate man who always assumed he was gay because everyone told
him he is, discover that he is, in fact, heterosexual).


It’s All Ironic

Don’t take Nip/Tuck so
seriously, its defenders say. It’s camp or irony — or both. "If you don’t get it, you don’t get it," Plotnick said.

But if a show as
deliberately provocative as Nip/Tuck
can’t be considered offensive, can anything ever be? Maybe not, but that just
might be a consequence of living in our age of media-overload and omnipresent
irony.

As for stereotypes, Nip/Tuck
isn’t promulgating them; it’s parodying
them. That’s the argument anyway, which is more or less convincing depending on
the episode in question. It is a show about image, after all.

Anyway, the characters on Nip/Tuck are far from the only gay people on TV these days. “If any
of these [negative gay Nip/Tuck
characters] were on TV fifteen or twenty years ago, we’d be having a different
conversation,” GLAAD’s Romine said. “We’re in a different universe now.”

He’s right. Unlike, say, 1977’s Soap, this show exists in
a “post-gay” world. We really are
everywhere, even in the screwed up, over-the-top world of Nip/Tuck.

In other words, maybe it’s a sign of true equality at last — and a sign of the show’s brilliant subversiveness — that
the gay characters on Nip/Tuck are
exactly as ugly as the straight ones.