AT first glance, this is not an unusual "Nip/Tuck" scene: former porn star Kimber and perpetually troubled Matt, young and fit sitting inside a hot, steamy sauna, ridding their bodies of poisons. But, as Kimber (Kelly Carlson) tells the impressionable Matt (John Hensley) in the episode that airs Tuesday, this is a different kind of sweating and cleansing.
The heat is wiping out Kimber's and Matt's emotional baggage, rendering their minds and spirits "clear," a practice that is part of the Church of Scientology's purification program. That's right: FX's top-rated drama has entered the world of Scientology, the religion that propelled Tom Cruise to lambaste Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs to alleviate her post-partum depression and earned Comedy Central's "South Park" its sixth Emmy nomination this year for an episode that satirized its beliefs (along with celebrity followers Cruise and John Travolta).
"Nip/Tuck," however, isn't interested in poking fun. In the same vein that the show explores plastic surgery -- underneath every breast implant or ounce of fat that is lipo-sucked, there is a self-loathing cry for help -- the first TV show to offer a contemporary examination of society's obsession with youth and beauty is exposing Scientology in an unprecedented manner. By having characters "auditing" one another, taking long saunas, discussing the notion of "havingness," slamming prescription drugs, and having "silent births," "Nip/Tuck" writers are educating fourth-season viewers about a religious philosophy that is cloaked in secrecy and most Americans only hear about as it relates to its celebrity members.
Creator Ryan Murphy said he chose for the tragic Kimber to turn to Scientology out of his own curiosity. "You read so much in the press about certain famous people who are Scientologists, but the media pushes it aside as a joke. And clearly it's not a joke for millions of people. I'm not for it. I'm not against it. I was just curious as to what it is, what they believe in, and how it changes life and how it destroys life."
At the end of the third season, the psycho Carver disfigured Kimber by reversing all 10 of her cosmetic procedures, so it's understandable that Kimber would seek spiritual solace one way or another. In the same way, Matt, who has had an adolescent ride unlike no other -- involving transsexuals, a neo-Nazi girlfriend and learning that his dad is not his biological father -- latches on to anything the intoxicating Kimber has to offer.
"My view of the world is that everybody is medicated on something: plastic surgery, drugs, sex, religion, shopping," said Murphy, sitting in his office on the Paramount lot. "We're a culture that anesthetizes ourselves with things. And we're also a culture that really tries hard to find meaning where sometimes there isn't any meaning. Our culture also is geared toward satirizing and making fun of people's choices. You would expect us to do that, but the fact that we're not is making people sit up and pay attention a little bit."
Murphy's writing staff spent six months researching Scientology and interviewing members and former members to gain insider knowledge of a religion that asserts that most human problems can be traced to lingering spirits of an extraterrestrial people massacred by their ruler, Xenu, over 75 million years ago. The spirits attach themselves to individuals and cause spiritual harm.
This basic premise has been the butt of many jokes and is at the heart of many comedy writers' spoofs, including "South Park's" famous "Trapped in the Closet" episode and Monday night's episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." In a sketch titled "Science Schmience" for the fictional late-night comedy show in creator Aaron Sorkin's new NBC drama, a Tom Cruise look-alike explains that depression is caused "because we lost a galactic battle waged 75 million years ago by a tyrant named Xenu. He captured the souls -- or thetans -- of enemies and electronically implanted false concepts in them to keep them confused about his nefarious plans."
Fair and balanced?
LIKEWISE, in a future episode of "Nip/Tuck," during a discussion with Kimber and Matt, Christian (Julian McMahon) cracks: "You sure you won't have to check with the mother ship first?" And when Matt tells Sean (Dylan Walsh), who raised him, and Christian that he wants to stop taking antidepressants because he has found Scientology, Christian responds: "All this does is prove to me that you're not getting enough drugs."
"We certainly have those [jokes], but we also have an immediate comeback from somebody who is a Scientologist who says that's not accurate, that's not fair, this is the truth, which you don't get on any other show," Murphy said. "And I think that's why it's shocking -- because it's balanced. When you see something like 'South Park,' as much as I loved it because it was funny, it was slanted and negative. I thought the fresher take would be to truly explore it."
When Carlson first heard of her character's story line, she worried, even though she knew Murphy was not the type of writer who would mock someone else's beliefs just to get a laugh.
"We're not that kind of show," said Carlson. "But 'Nip/Tuck' also sheds light on the darker side of life, so I wasn't sure what they were going to do with it. [Television and movies] don't normally go there with Scientology because they don't understand it. And I'm not saying I understand it. I've tried and I'm doing the best that I can representing it as honest as I can."
For his part, Hensley said the scripts have sent him to the Scientology glossary a few times and he and Matt are learning together about terms such as "theta" -- which Matt explains as "the life force inside all of us that reveals itself as we become more conscious" -- and "havingness" -- which Kimber describes as "the feeling that you deserve material things."
"This is the first time in the history of the show for me personally that I have ever even remotely thought of what somebody's reaction to the show might be," Hensley said. "I don't think those things are any of my business. But I did think about people who may find it to be their way of life, and had Kimber been a born-again Christian, I think, I probably would have had the same thoughts. Now, given that this is 'Nip/Tuck,' they've actually taken a pretty gentle approach to the way we're dealing with the whole issue because 'Nip/Tuck' is a very in-your-face story. It's a tricky thing no matter how you cut it."
FX president and general manager John Landgraf said he reacted to the introduction of Scientology into the series the same way he typically responds to potentially controversial topics on his shows. First, he asked Murphy if he had a personal history with Scientology or if he had a personal ax to grind. When Murphy, a former journalist, explained he was interested in presenting a balanced view, Landgraf looked at the history of the two characters and found it credible that they would turn to it for stability and structure.
Although the church is rumored to seek retribution through lawsuits or violent acts against its critics, Landgraf said it never factored in the network's decision to encourage Murphy's creative vision. Since Scientology was first mentioned in the Sept. 12 episode, fans have taken notice that "Nip/Tuck" is touching on a subject the entertainment industry generally avoids.
"First they talked about 'tech' and 'reactive mind' but I was surprised when they actually came right out and referred to Scientology," wrote one viewer on www.randi.org. "Bravo! I wonder how long it will take the producers of this show to be sued."
"Nip/Tuck," wrote a fan on dotcrawl.wordpress.com, "doesn't so much take on issues as it tosses them into the pot. There's no passing judgment here.... That means you can trust the show to handle something like religion with absolute indelicacy and that's what I love about it. I'm looking forward to a showdown between Scientologist Kimber and Christian's shrink, Brooke Shields." (In a clever casting twist, Shields, a target of Cruise's tirade against psychiatry, is playing a psychiatrist this season.)
So far, no one from the church has contacted FX or Murphy. Repeated phone calls to the church by the Los Angeles Times were not returned.
"I think I would have serious questions about whether we want to essentially go to battle against any religion. I don't think that's where any business ought to be," Landgraf said. "The flip side of that is that if Ryan's writing something that's creatively valid and it's creatively balanced, I don't think it serves the interests of the religion to somehow personally attack Ryan, or me, or one of the actors. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I guess time will tell."
One thing that is certain, Murphy said, is that Scientology won't be a quick fix for Kimber and Matt. The two characters will stay committed to the religion beyond this season. In Tuesday's episode, Sean begins to see an upside when he spots his 18-year-old son in a church uniform picking up trash.
"At least, he's not dating Nazis or transsexuals anymore," Sean says.