I was initially sceptical about Nip/Tuck, which follows the fortunes of Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) who are plastic surgeons in Miami. The first episode converted me to its merits. Not only are there three-dimensional, flawed characters in the series, but they develop and change as the series advances.
Sean is the family man, with two kids, and a wife, Julia (Joely Richardson), who yearns to return to Medical school – her goal before she had children. Sean and Julia’s marriage has become stagnant, and one of the main storylines in the series is an examination of what motivates people to stay in a long-term relationship when the passion and love has evaporated. Christian is the smooth-talking, amoral, heartbreaker, who starts off being a man who is motivated only by how many hot women he can bed, his boat (called the Boatox), fast cars and money. As is pointed out in the show, Sean is the talent, and Christian is the salesman.
There is a great deal being said in this show about consumerist culture and the insecurities that drive people to the scalpels of plastic surgeons. Each episode features at least one client who wants plastic surgery, with an analysis of how the treatment impacts upon his or her life. In between the glamour, and the successes, we see the heartbreak and the trauma of people who attempt to fix their internal problems via an external change. During each episode we witness part of the surgery in toe-curling graphic detail. The reality of what plastic surgery involves – the carved flesh, broken cartilage, and transferred muscle – is a shocking antidote to the dreams and aspirations of some of the superficial people who traipse into the offices of McNamara and Troy.
What surprised me when I watched Nip/Tuck was the believable characterisation, and the excellence of the writing. Upon investigation I discovered that the show was conceived, and co-written, by Ryan Murphy, who was responsible for the excellent dark teen comedy, Popular – a highly underrated series. Looking at the episodes with an eye for plotting, and storytelling, Nip/Tuck consistently manages to twist the story into unexpected directions. Such as how the audience is tipped off that Sean’s son, Matt (John Hensley), is about to walk into his girlfriend’s room and see her making out with someone. The twist is neatly delivered: his girlfriend is making out with another girl.
The show constantly points out the essential messiness of life, and how easily situations can become complicated. In a fit of rage at her situation, Julia flushes the pet hamster down the toilet. This results in a blocked drain, which the plumber fixes – unfortunately he discovers the drowned corpse. Julia’s momentary cruelty is discovered in front of another friend, and all the women at her girl’s school shun her, she receives an official fine, which means that Sean hears about the incident. This is a rather minor example of the cascading impact of actions that is exploited in Nip/Tuck, and the brand of dark humour underlying the drama.
The main theme that Nip/Tuck explores is the importance of having a moral centre in life, and how difficult that is to maintain when one’s income comes from a business that is focused on superficial values such as beauty. Christian, in particular, undergoes a change in focus. His lack of morals in regards taking on clients ends up causing him and Sean a great deal of money and grief when a dangerous criminal, Escobar Gallardo (played with fantastic verve by Robert LaSardo), begins blackmailing them. They are forced into doing illegal and dangerous operations on women who are smuggling heroin into the USA via breast implants. The women are completely disposable to Escobar, who refers to them as his “mules”. These episodes, in particular, offer a damming indictment of the beauty trade, and how women can become pieces of meat whose only value is their parts, not their whole person.
The series is much helped by the excellence of the performances by the actors, with Dylan Walsh being particularly well cast as the identifiable confused father and husband, who manages to hold onto his moral centre despite great trials, including an affair, and the subsequent death of his girlfriend, and the near-destruction of his marriage. Julian McMahon certainly has the looks to carry off the part of the amoral plastic surgeon, and though his range is somewhat limited, he pulls off a character who is sympathetic despite his many flaws. Joely Richardson plays the desperately unhappy wife with teary-eyed nervousness, which suits her character well. Regarding minor characters, there’s the fabulous Roma Maffia, who plays Liz Winters, the anaesthesiologist, the psycho Kimberly Henry (Kelly Carlson) and the transsexual Sophia Lopez (Jonathan Del Arco).
The show is not perfect, and I think some of Christian’s frenetic sex scenes in the early episodes were rather humdrum and done with an obvious desire to cause controversy. I much preferred the humourous, and emotionally involved, sex scene in the last episode between Christian and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Gina Russo (Jessalyn Gilsig). Once the series dropped its need to have Christian banging some hot chick to keep the rating hard (ahem), it settled into its stride nicely.
The series aired during the summer of 2003 on Fox Networks, at a late hour to attract the appropriately mature audience. The series was envisioned as a tactical strike against the dominion of HBO in the serious drama stakes, and it’s certainly claimed some interesting territory. It does have some work ahead of it if it wishes to compete with the sheer class of programmes like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos.
It’s obvious from the last episode that it was unknown when it was shot if there would be a second season. Most of the loose ends are tied up, but some of them in an unconvincing manner. Thankfully, there will be a second season, and there are plenty of plot lines left to exploit. It will air in the USA in June of this year (just as the DVD boxed set for season 1 appears).
Let’s hope that Ryan Murphy and his co-writers continue to develop this watchable series, with less emphasis on the shock-value, and more thought given to the complex characters and the quality of the storylines. I look forward to season two, which won’t air in the UK/Ireland until 2005.