You Never Forget Your First. You Shouldn’t Forget Your Second, Either.

I’m often accused of having sometimes too good a memory, especially for events that qualified as firsts in my life.  I can recall in very vivid detail where and what I was doing when the Mets won their first National League pennant (in my mom’s clunky Oldsmobile Holiday sedan riding home from school, same as I was when they won their first World Series ten days later), but I’m honestly not sure where I was when they won their second.  (And the only reason I know where I was when they won their second World’s Championship is because I was in the upper left field stands watching in person).

I remember my first day of high school,  My first day of college.  My first days at work,  And yes, the night I lost my virginity.  Although in the last case, there haven;t been all that many similar nights since.

And Lord knows I remember in vivid detail everything that happened that led up to March 12, 2002, the night the first FX quality drama, THE SHIELD, premiered and IMHO forever changed the landscape of linear television.   When the 20th anniversary of that groundbreaking series was celebrated, I produced what to this day is still my most-viewed musing, and I wasn’t alone among many other more prominent historians and observers celebrating that milestone.   But were it not for the ever-present and detailed social media post yesterday from my fellow Flushing native and PROGRAMMING INSIDER author Marc Berman, I would have not been reminded, nor would I have remembered, that yesterday was the 20th anniversary of FX’s second.

Yes, on July 22, 2003, the darkly dramatic and, at times, even WTF humorous nip/tuck (yes, much like e.e. cummings, the show was always intended to be referenced in lower case, to underscore the show’s concept that beauty is often only on the surface) debuted on FX. (which, ironically, had made the decision to capitalize its letters when it underwent its own transformation).   After THE SHIELD’s shocking degree of ratings and critical success, which secured most of my own and fellow esecutives’ long-term future, while it was important to the network’s evolution, there weren’t life or death stakes attached to it.  And I do recall that to hedge our bets ever so slightly, we decided to premiere it in the summer, where broadcast competition was much lighter, rather than during the height of the regular TV season.

What THE SHIELD was to violence and police dramas , nip/tuck was to sex and medical dramas.  Instead of noble practitioners like Marcus Welby or the cast of ER in a traditional hospital setting, nip/tuck revolved around the, per Wikipedia, (a) plastic-surgery center, McNamara/Troy, centering on the two doctors who own it. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) is often found having problems at home due to being seduced by beautiful women on a daily basis, and thus tries to keep his family together by patching up the rocky road in which his family and himself are living. Partner Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), though, uses his charm to bring in potential female candidates and conducts vain business deals, almost never failing and ending up with dozens of women in bed. Sean takes his job seriously and often must fix Christian’s mistakes.

The show was titillating, pun fully intended.  The ever-seductive Troy would ask some of the most stunning models in the world, not to mention well-heeled aging doyennes, who had found their way to the ultra-competitive world of Miami social life, “tell me what you don’t like about yourself”.  And week after week, he’d play upon their fragile emotions and ample bank accounts to pad his own net worth, not to mention notches on his belt.  Celebrities aplenty eagerly wanted to appear in guest roles, sometimes in over-the-top roles that few other shows of the era will willing to do.  No surprise, given the show came from who arguably has been the most unapologetically graphic and lurid storyteller in TV, and certainly one of the richest.   But at the time Ryan Murphy was merely an upstart former reporter for The Miami Herald who had a deal with Warner Brothers, and was best known for a modestly successful early WB show called POPULAR, which centered on a Brady Bunch-like coupling that forced a vain cheerleader and a nuanced reporter from the same high school to co-exist as stepsisters.  Like SHIELD creator Shawn Ryan, Murphy drew upon his own investigative history, in this case covering the world of South Florida nightlife and how much people in the center of it were driven to spend money they often did not have to try and be more of a part of it, to come up with a show that no one else but FX would have taken a shot at.

But unlike Ryan, Murphy was initially loath to let market research play much of a role in helping to shape his voice.  And Warner Brothers, unlike Sony, at the time was far more arrogant and uncooperative with network partners who may have wanted to have had the public chime in on what resonated and what might have benefitted from some fine-tuning.  So while I do recall working extensively with our award-winning marketing team on the campaigns we used to sell the concept to the public, my involvement in the show itself was negligible.    We only showed the pilot for context to gauge reaction to our spots.

But Murphy, as he has many times since, was of course spot on in his vision for what would work on a mass appeal basis.  The first episode actually reached just north of 3 million viewers, a hair below THE SHIELD’s premiere, but went on to become 2003’s most-watched new series on American basic cable, and actually eclipsed it as the highest-rated cable series of all time in the key audience sales demographics of adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.  I did particularly enjoy crafting that narrative.

So I don’t recall much about any back and forth with Murphy and his cast to the extent that our team had with those involved with THE SHIELD.  McMahon and Walsh were approachable and friendly, but I actually spent more time explaining how they had become TV sex symbols to their wives, McMahon’s at the time was once a Baywatch beauty and had particular insights about that world.  Later on, when she became one of the loveliest and most accomplished game show emcees on GSN’s THE CHASE, Brooke Burns and I had some particularly deeper conversations about her experiences in the pressure-packed world of modeling, not to mention some clipped conversations on how her life with McMahon changed as nip/tuck’s–and his–popularity exploded.

But I did get a second chance to work on the evolution of a potential Ryan Murphy series, and by this time there was enough at stake where he actually invited our involvement.  Murphy was now fully part of the FOX family when he produced a pilot initally called 4 oz., which just happens to be the weight of an adult penis.  Retitled PRETTY/HANDSOME (yes, it was capitalized), it cast Ralph Fiennes’ brother Joseph as Bob, a married man who comes out as transgender.  In a world where Laverne Cox was yet to make an impression, the show’s premise was especially risk-taking, even for the typically artist-friendly FX team I worked with.  Murphy was extremely invested in seeing this series into production, and was upset when my team had asked that we show the pilot to focus groups.

“No straight male will sit in a room with strangers looking over their shoulder and honestly react favorably with a dial turn if he happens to find the sight of a man in a dress appealing”, lectured Murphy.  And, of course, he was right.  But when I had been invited into the planning meeting, I had recently had a chance meeting at a research conference with some entrepreneurial former heads of Cal-Berkeley’s storied neuroscience department who were looking into ways to incorporate neurofeedback research into content testing.  The process involved fitting respondents with a cap that measured EEG brain responses and had them watch content on a screen that also captured their rapid eye movements.  Their involuntary reactions were captured and could be graphically traced much like a traditional focus group.  The Berkeley guys were successfully using this with some advertisers to measure organic responses to short-form ads.  They were eager to see if the methodology could be expanded into something that could be adjusted for longer-form content, and were looking for a guinea pig to try it out.  In practical terms, we were being offered free research.  I played this chip with Murphy and my superiors.

“What if we ran a parallel test of the pilot using this sort of methodology and compared the peaks and valleys with a regular dial test?”, I offered.  “If we did this, we’d be able to identify a bit more clearly if what they didn’t like was at all related to the scenes where we see Fiennes in women’s clothing, or where he more openly discusses his coming out.  And, oh by the way, it won’t add a single cent to our research budget”.

So yes, I got the chance to do something truly groundbreaking on my own.  What the neurofeedback testing conferred was that the pilot didn’t work not because of anything attributable to Fiennes’ on-screen presence, or even his acting.   Co-star Carrie Ann Moss was especially weak as his wife.  Blythe Danner and Robert Wagner were disapponting as the lead’s vain and somewhat detached elitist parents.  Their dial test scores reflected this, and the tracings attached to their scenes were similar in both methodoogies.\

If you come across anything about this pilot, you’ll note that VOGUE later reported that Murphy “was devastated when the studio he was working with decided not to pursue the show because they felt their advertisers wouldn’t support it”.[4].  

Well, let me set the record straight.  That’s true.  But that’s apparently what my superiors chose to tell Murphy was the reason.  And I know that because the second time I saw Murphy after this incident was in the FX men;’ bathroom where, while we stared not looking at each other while relieving our respective bladders, Murphy turned to me and said “You know, I know your work on the other show was legit.  You have a pretty good handle on what works.  I’m pitching your old boss a show about high school glee clubs tomorrow.  Do you remember when that was the most important thing going on in your world?”

An hour later, after Murphy and I shared our respective high school disappointment stories, I had been given the elevator–well, urinal–pitch for what became GLEE.  And I knew damn well the man who I just talked with was gonna be a helluva lot more successful than even nip/tuck had made him.

I do find it a bit more ironic that the 20th anniversary of nip/tuck coincides with the highly successful–and, sadly, politicaly divisive–premiere of the BARBIE movie.  And in my own candid discussions with women who were actually part of the South Florida modeling world who eventually became close with me, I learned that the perfection that dolls like Barbie offered was in part the impetus for their own plastic surgeries.  They’ve never apologized, though they’ve all learned that outer beauty is only so impactful on their inner feelings of self-worth.  Some have even learned that respect is more fleeting that objectification, and learned the hard way how spot on the show that they tried to watch for entertainment purposes only was.

And, equally ironically, I plan to see that movie today with the second beautiful person who changed my life.  No, she didn’t come from South Florida.  But she’s pretty damn special and impactful, and it’s a joy to consider her a friend.  And I know she at least likes the fact I appreciate her for more than her exterior qualities.

See?  The second in a series IS worthy of celebration.  Even if it requires hindsight for those memories to be triggered.

So happy belated 20th, nip/tuck.  And thank you for preparing me for my own transformation.

Until next time…

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