In Praise Of Nip/Tuck’s First Season

Nip/Tuck is a soap opera for smart people.  It’s also a black comedy, a thriller and a tragedy all rolled into one.  I’ve just gotten acquainted with the show’s first season via DVD this past week and what a show it is.  From that moment in the first episode when we see a butt implant surgery in progress I became a fan.  The 66-minute pilot is one of the most astounding debut episodes of a TV series I have ever seen.
Debuting on the Fox offshoot channel, FX, in 2003, the show (set in Miami) is about two plastic surgeons – one married, one single – who have built their lucrative business from nothing.  Dylan Walsh plays Dr. Sean McNamara, the seemingly more level-headed of the two.  A married father of a teenage son and an 8-year-old daughter, on the surface, he seems to have it all.  Underneath, it’s all a horrible mess.  His wife, Julia, (played wonderfully by British actress Joely Richardson) has so much pent-up resentment towards him it all comes out in an explosive kitchen scene in the pilot where she ends up throwing a dish at him and declares, “…on your watch, a death has occurred, the death of you and me.  This marriage doesn’t even have a pulse anymore.”  (Such beautiful writing.)  And yet, the marriage perseveres, for better or worse, leaving you to wonder if Mrs. McNamara is a drama queen or too cowardly to move on.  It doesn’t help that both Julia and Sean have wandering eyes.
His son, Matt (John Hensley) is deeply self-conscious about his uncircumcised penis and wants his father to approve surgery for him.  Despite getting turned down by both his dad and his “uncle” Christian, he finds a DIY website online and foolishly tries to perform the procedure himself.  Inevitably, it all goes badly, he passes out at the site of his own blood and ends up having the surgery anyway after having a heart-to-heart with his father.  
He’s dating an attractive cheerleader (Kate Mara) from his high school but his world comes crashing down when he catches her fooling around with another cheerleader (Sophia Bush).   He finds out the hard way she’s really gay.  Later on, incredibly, he gets talked into having a threesome with these hot girls and during a follow-up encounter at his house, his mother walks in on the fun and festivities.  So freaked out, she calls the parents of the two hotties in order to have a “sexual intervention” with the three frisky biscuits.  Both funny and dramatic, uncomfortable truths are revealed which hurt the situation more than help. 
If that weren’t bad enough, Matt unwittingly gets involved in a hit and run accident involving a fellow student he never paid attention to before.  That sequence in episode 8, one of the most moving shows in the series, proves more than anything the foolishness of diverting your attention even for a second.
Australian actor Julian McMahon (Dr. Doom from Fantastic Four) plays Dr. McNamara’s partner,  Dr. Christian Troy, a sly ladykiller with a deep, dark secret.  Every time he scores with a hot chick, I can’t help but root for his conquests.  He’s James Bond with a license to slice.  Unfortunately, that kind of Hefneresque lifestyle gives him a couple of unrelenting headaches.  There’s Kimber (Kelly Carlson), a beautiful model with a poor self-image who, at first, blows off Dr. Troy while they’re drinking at a bar and then, can’t resist him when he just happens to mention he’s a plastic surgeon.  Their on-again/off-again courtship is spread over several episodes in the first season.  At one point, Kimber gets a tattoo of her new boyfriend’s initials: KT.  Unfortunately there’s no “K” in Christian.  (This woman is so dumb somebody should’ve put out an APB on her intelligence years ago.)
The other headache is Gina Russo (played by Canadian actress Jessalyn Gilsig).  Dr. Troy meets her at a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting and she sees right through his act.  That doesn’t stop the inevitable from happening.  She pops up later on to inform Christian he’s about to be a father.  (He gets a real shock in the season finale when he delivers the baby himself.)  I’m worried about the progression of this storyline because I like the idea of Dr. Troy playing the field instead of being tied down by a neurotic, angry hypocrite of a woman.  And yet, in the season finale, Dr. Troy reveals a side of him we rarely see.  It’s to Julian McMahon’s credit that, because he’s playing this character, we’re with him every step of the way despite his sometimes questionable judgment. 
If that weren’t enough, Nip/Tuck is loaded with strong, recurring supporting roles.   Among the standouts:  Julie Warner, wonderfully sympathetic as an unhappily married breast cancer survivor looking for implants but finding something else altogether; Valerie Cruz who plays Dr. Santiago, the new office shrink who stirs our two surgeons in ways not at all surprising; Jonathan Del Arco as the sweet and very funny transsexual Sofia Lopez; Joey Slotnick as the very slimy Dr. Merril Bobolit.  I can’t forget the great Roma Maffia (love that name) who plays Liz, the anasteseologist.  She has wonderful comic timing and is a strong presence every time we see her.  But the most chilling supporting character, without question, is Escobar Gallardo (played magnificently by Robert LaSardo).  He’s a ruthless Columbian drug dealer who pops up in the pilot and then, returns late in the season to wreak havoc on our doctors.  Smart, cold, bald and heavily tattooed (those are real, by the way), he might be the scariest TV villain in years.  The most unusual quality about him?  His obsession with Retro music. 
Nip/Tuck reminds me of a couple of great films:  The Doctor (1991) and American Beauty (1999).   The Doctor was probably the first movie I saw that revealed that surgeons like listening to music while they work.  William Hurt played the lead in that movie and he is as arrogant as Dr. Troy and as aloof as Dr. McNamara. 
American Beauty is all about the masks that people wear to hide their true selves, but those masks are gradually cracking, thereby exposing personality traits that would much rather remain hidden from view. That’s a perfect way to describe Nip/Tuck as well.  Patients are directed to respond to this statement in every consulation: “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.”  They think the horrible pain they’re about to endure will rescue them from their own self-hatred.  As the show reveals, it almost never happens.
This is an unusual show.  It contains moments of searing drama and yet, it’s also very funny.  (The butt implant sequence early in the pilot contains probably the biggest laughs of the season.  3 big releases in one scene.)  It’s also alternately scary and comforting, sexy and creepy, joyful one minute, sad the next.
The show is smart enough (and ballsy enough) to show us the reality of plastic surgery and even use that as an appropriate metaphor for its storylines.  The special effects are so good during those scenes you’d swear you were watching real surgery.  No wonder the special effects team have won awards for their first-rate work.  
There are many surprise developments as the series progresses.  However, some of the plot twists are a little predictable. That’s ok, though, because even when that happens, I’m not taken out of the show.  I have such strong feelings for the characters, who are as complex as any you’ll find on TV, that as long as the show doesn’t get too outlandish (by its very nature it’s cheerfully overwrought), I would follow them anywhere.
The first season wraps up beautifully with a nice twist and, as expected, a revelation yet to come.  For those who have followed this show beyond 2003, you already know what that is.  For me, bring on the second season.
The first two seasons of Nip/Tuck are available on DVD.  I highly recommend Nip/Tuck: The Complete First Season.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, March 18, 2006
3:55 p.m.
Published in: on March 18, 2006 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] I enjoyed her three-episode stint on the first season of Nip/Tuck, defended her over her failed marriage to actor Chad Michael Murray and praised her solid, […]

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