After 40 years as a TV critic, Ann Hodges of the Houston Chronicle recently retired with some warm words about television, but also some tough ones: "The creeping coarseness of TV programs has pushed much more than a litany of vulgar words into polite society. And with each September season, broadcast TV's no-no's tumble in the rush to catch cable's anything-goes. If harping on that along the way made me a blue-nose, I wear the banner proudly."
Everyone who watches more than a few minutes of television a day has noticed the way cable TV is driving our mass culture into a morass of shock value, cashing in on voyeurism, milking the profits from sensation, perversion, ultraviolence, ultrasexuality. We are growing numb from the mental poking and prodding and ripping at our every vulnerable sensibility, our every notion of prim propriety. As a way of dragging eyeballs to the next set of commercials for yuppie consumer goods, cable-show producers hit their labs to create a bigger buzz, a riper spectacle, an addiction that craves the next gaudy high or atrocious low. In the end, what we're getting is TV designed for degenerates.
The result is a show like FX's new "black comedy" about plastic surgeons, titled "Nip/Tuck." From the utter depravity of its sensationalism, it should be better known as "Up/Chuck."
It's got graphic sex, soft-core, screaming-orgasm acting. Our surgeons are introduced to us by showing the gaping variety in their sex lives. Christian, the womanizing cocaine user with zero medical ethics, is having very graphic sex, including a shot of his naked behind, with a model he's just met. Sean, the uptight family man, is just doing perfunctory back-and-forth bouncing on his wife, as each spouse thinks about mundane errands.
It's got foul language. Sean's wife can't discuss her young daughter's gerbil she hates without cursing about its trail of doo-doo. When her son uses the same word, the young daughter says he used the "brown word." Sean's wife later flushes the gerbil down the toilet.
But wait! There's more.
In addition to beatings, killing and torture, it's got gut-churning, graphic operation scenes that make "CSI" look like a Nickelodeon offering. Right off the bat in the premiere, we see a rear end sliced open, the skin peeled pack and silicone implants shoved in. We see a complete facial reconstruction, and to a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," we see noses cracked, eyes slit open and blood spurting everywhere. We see one of the surgeons get tortured with Botox shots, including one to the penis. We see a man die in the middle of liposuction as his fat tissue is sprayed all over the surgeons and nurses. We see the surgeons take the corpse out to the Florida swamp, strap 12 hams to it and watch an alligator eat it. The "comedy" comes in when Sean, the uptight one, insists that from now on, he wants to take on pro-bono surgeries.
Predictably, TV critics have sent out the word that this show is too shocking to miss. One critic raved the premiere had "one of the sauciest, edgiest, goriest, grossest and most engrossing openers of this TV year ... 'Nip/Tuck' is what the doctor ordered to put a little wicked dramedy in a silly sitcom-ed out TV season." (That little bit of promotion is featured in the FX publicity materials.) That critic is ... Ann Hodges of the Houston Chronicle. Only the alligator scene was too much, according to her review. She doesn't really have to worry about that "blue nose" reputation.
FX is the same network that's milking graphic violence in "The Shield," another amoral show, which rotates around a crooked cop. They pushed the envelope last season by shoving a perp's face into an electric burner so the viewer could have the giddy sensation of watching flesh melt. In today's fractured cable universe, these shows don't have to draw more than a few million people to be considered a success. But the more our cultural commissars tout these spectacles for their edge and grit, their "original" and "compelling" vision, the more our tastes are molded by shock and not art, sensation and not story, intensity and not morality.
FX's 'Nip/Tuck" ads also tout AP's Lynn Elber calling it "a summer shot of adrenaline." That's a nice-sounding cliche, but a real shot of adrenaline can also can make your heart race, make you shake uncontrollably and stress other organs. That's what cable TV is doing to our culture. One wonders just how proud Rupert Murdoch is of his FX creation.