Asked to recall his most satisfying moment working on “Nip/Tuck,” series topper-creator Ryan Murphy tells not of an award or glowing review but a phone call.
“One day I got a message, completely out of the blue, from Catherine Deneuve’s people. Turns out she was a major fan of the show, she’d watched every episode with her daughter and wanted to know if I was ever in France could I maybe write a part for her?”
For the 43-year-old Murphy, it was a surreal moment.
“Deneuve was always a major icon to me, growing up. She just epitomized beauty and glamour,” he recalls. “So when I was in Paris a few months later, I called her up and went to meet her; we ended up talking for over two hours. And, of course, I agreed to put her in the show.
“She said she wanted to do something completely over the top. So,” he continues, “I ended up writing her a role as a woman who wants her (dead lover’s) ashes put into her breast implants. That just delighted her.”
It says a lot that the outrageousness of that particular “Nip/Tuck” episode, which aired in season four, was by no means the most outrageous in the series’ run.
Since its debut in 2003, with a pilot that culminated in the body of a murdered drug lord being fed to alligators (“a metaphor for excessive consumption,” according to Murphy), the Golden Globe-winning skein has unleashed increasingly over-the-top plotlines and consistently tested the limits of network permissiveness, particularly in its depiction of sexuality and recreational drug use.
“It’s a very sexy package,” he admits. “It’s erotic and consciously pushes the boundaries. But then, it should: The show is about flesh, after all. It’s all about our bodies, and how we use and abuse them.”
For Murphy, who has another hit on his hands with Fox’s musical comedy “Glee,” the show’s success was gratifying, but also tinged with faint misgivings — a sense that his original intentions were being misinterpreted.
“It was, in many ways, a satire of the procedural TV medical series, and at the same time a very pointed critique of both the baby-boomer generation and the Bush era. But for some reason, a lot of critics never seemed to get that. A lot of them just said it glorified sex and violence, which wasn’t really the point at all.”
Despite its glamorous setting, the series was by no means an easy sell, he admits. “Initially, no one really thought it would work. … It certainly ran the risk of just being a very insidery, Hollywood-type phenomenon. Of course, those people all loved it at once — so much so that I’d constantly get people coming up to me and saying how a story hadn’t gone far enough, that the truth was actually much stranger than what we’d showed. Just in terms of gossip, it was incredible.
“But then, for it to also become part of the broader culture, the way it has … that was obviously a great relief both for me and the network. And I suppose I felt kind of vindicated, in the sense that we’d clearly touched a nerve. We’d tapped into something about where America’s at in relation to its ambivalence about consumerism, beauty and image.”
With the culmination of the sixth season, Murphy looks back to trace the show’s evolution.
“For the first season, I suppose I was trying to get the feel right — this strange and very specific tone. So the storytelling was slower and the pacing much more deliberate. By season two, we had a hit on our hands, so the network left us alone. And to my surprise, I actually found that the more personal I made the show, the more successful it became.”
Even now, despite a growing list of other commitments, Murphy continues to exercise rigorous control over almost every aspect of the series, from scripting to production design.
“I often talk about this with Matt Weiner (exec producer of “Mad Men”), who’s also accused of being a control freak. We both say the same thing: If someone’s paying you to create a world on TV and you wind up delegating everything …, then you’re not only wasting an incredible opportunity, you’re also not doing your job.”
Murphy worked closely with FX prexy John Landgraf; the two often collaborated on what would make it on the final cut. “I had plenty of arguments with Ryan over the years, and we bonded,” Landgraf says. “He definitely used FX as a vehicle for pushing the envelope, and we censored and edited him heavily, though that might be hard (to detect).”