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."