“Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.”
As TV catchphrases go, it’s pretty creepy and pretty catchy. And it crystallizes the compelling blend of obnoxiousness and preachiness that runs through Nip/Tuck, a drama series about two Miami plastic surgeons who peel back human flesh as easily as the rest of us tear off Christmas wrapping paper. Like an old-fashioned pulp novel from the 1950s that disguises prurience beneath the pretense of edifying the public, Nip/Tuck wallows in the very decadence it pretends to critique. The show’s creator, ex-journalist Ryan Murphy, has talked about conceiving the series as a high-gloss morality play. In reality, it looks more like some insane TV-land scientist grafted Extreme Makeover onto Melrose Place in an attempt to create the ultimate audience-devouring mechanism. The ensuing grotesquerie is addictive, like gorging on brownies to the point of puking. You know it’s bad for you, but you just cannot take your eyes off the screen.
Nip/Tuck‘s vise-like grip on my attention has nothing to do with the characters’ being lovable. They’re not even especially real. Instead, as in a soap opera, the characters are good-looking stick figures representing lifestyles and moral choices. Goody Two-shoes Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and dead-eyed sex fiend Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) are partners, best friends, and polar opposites. The second season starts with both doctors standing on the precipice of middle age: Their 40th birthdays loom, setting the stage for an entire episode drenched in self-doubt and self-loathing. Sean lives the way middle-aged men did at the dawn of the TV era: stable home life with two kids and blonde stay-at-home, Julia (Joely Richardson), who secretly lusts after other men. Christian, in contrast, is post-baby boomer: deeply in denial of the aging process, relentless in his pursuit of young pussy, and Botoxed to the gills. Other characters seem to correspond to one or other of the seven deadly sins. Julia’s mother, for instance—played with gusto by Vanessa Redgrave, real-life mother to Richardson—is all about vanity. An aging if still glamorous psychotherapist and author, she wants her sexual allure surgically maintained to keep her books selling and her ego afloat. Gina, Christian’s girlfriend and co-parent, embodies lust. A card-carrying member of Sexaholics Anonymous, she recruits her fellow addicts as sperm donors when she wants to get pregnant again, resulting in an amiable gang-bang scene.
Nip/Tuck has aspirations to be more than a sudsy melodrama. In fact, it probably wants to be Six Feet Under, which also combines job-related plotlines with ongoing family narratives and is similarly based in an icky, cover-your-eyes profession. (Sean looks uncannily like Six Feet‘s David Fisher, and Vanessa Redgrave’s character bears more than a passing resemblance to Brenda’s overbearing shrink mother.) Sadly, Nip/Tuck isn’t in the same league by a long shot—where Six Feet‘s characters are tempestuous and complex, driven by an internal logic as well as by events, the figures in Nip/Tuck are like flesh-puppets, human-shaped figments seemingly formed from our culture’s collective unconscious. Even so, Christian is a marvelous monster in the grand soap-opera tradition of J.R. Ewing.
The only area where Nip/Tuck really competes with Six Feet is in the grody zone. There are lots of vile bodily fluids spurting every which way: One episode finds our heroes lancing the world’s largest boil, while in another, Gina turns up with breast-milk-swollen breasts and demands that Christian suck out the painful excess fluid. “I’m not swallowing,” he insists, setting up the scene’s visual punchline—a shot of Christian spitting a mouthful of frothy white stuff into the sink. That’s got to be a first, even for cable. Inevitably, the show locks itself in a spiral of ever escalating grossness—you keep wondering how they’ll top that, but they always do. An episode later this season based around a Somalian fashion model who wants her clitoris rebuilt decades after it was removed in ritual mutilation is perfect for Nip/Tuck. The writers can pretend to deal with a serious theme (African female mutilation and a woman’s inalienable right to orgasm) while simultaneously generating no end of pudenda-based wordplay. “I’m a goddamn genius when it comes to pussy,” Christian brags as the two surgeons jostle over who gets to do the tricky operation. “If I build it, she will come.” With scenes ruthlessly scripted to tempt the vacillating viewer, Nip/Tuck is the ultimate guilty pleasure. It may even end up a camp classic, a future reminiscing-point for VH1’s I Love the ’00s. Nose jobs and blowjobs, what’s not to love?