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Nothing a knife couldn't improve

The FX plastic surgery series 'Nip/Tuck' hits some hot issues. But does it have to be so over the top?

July 22, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Constructing a dramatic series around plastic surgery -- ripe as that backdrop is for sex, nudity and beautiful people awash in opulence -- is such a no-brainer for TV it's a wonder pay cable or Aaron Spelling didn't get there first.

Which is why "Nip/Tuck" -- a provocative but at times off-putting new show -- doesn't do itself a favor by pressing considerably further, tacking on the more obvious trappings of violence, torture and a marriage so troubled it could qualify for "Jerry Springer."

Premiering tonight on basic cable's FX -- which has garnered attention with the HBO-like (and more often HBO-lite) series "The Shield" and "Lucky" -- "Nip/Tuck" is both troubling and welcome. On the downside, some situations come across as over the top, and the sex scenes have a certain beer commercial slickness to them.

Yet the show balances that by providing a complex, nuanced look at the corroded values and even psychology that can make people so hungry to change their appearance.

Through graphic scenes of the surgery itself, moreover, series creator Ryan Murphy clearly intends to depict liposuction or breast-enhancement procedures as anything but appetizing, a point likely to be lost on those too squeamish to hang around much past the opening credits.

So "Nip/Tuck" both wallows in (and seeks to cash in on) these shallow and twisted lives, while portraying them with warts and then some. That's a departure from ABC's reality-based "Extreme Makeover" or Howard Stern's radio and TV shows, which treat the idea of going under the scalpel as being on a par with ordering a burger and fries.

At the show's core are two surgeons, Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon), who share a practice in sun-worshipping Miami. Married with kids, Sean is hard-working but frustrated and distant from his wife, Julia (Joely Richardson), who resents him both for sacrifices she made and the emotional deep freeze that has set in. No wonder their teenage son (John Hensley) harbors disdain for them and desperately wants his own minor, if highly personal, surgical procedure.

Christian, meanwhile, is a classic lady's man who even parlays his sexual conquests into new business development -- at one point marking up a beautiful woman with a lipstick, as if she were a pot roast, to highlight her shortcomings.

Yet his loose ethical standards, which include operating on a drug dealer seeking to flee the country, put him at peril, and his unresolved feelings for Julia could jeopardize his partnership with Sean.

Those themes continue into the second episode, which finds the pair debating whether to operate on identical teenage twins named Mandi and Randi. Determined to lose their own identities, one plunks down a picture of "Alias" star Jennifer Garner, and says she wants her nose. (Hey, who doesn't?)

Both Walsh and McMahon are superb in their roles, the latter every bit the morally challenged playboy, while Walsh and Richardson create a searing portrait of a marriage in shambles.

Having produced the short-lived WB teen drama "Popular," executive producer Murphy exhibits a knack here for zeroing in on the obsession with physical beauty, as well as the tormented souls that can lurk beneath. He undermines those strengths, however, with the show's more outlandish flourishes, as if duty-bound to push as far as possible -- and beyond what's necessary -- to make an impression and merit both the "mature audiences" rating and promotional claim to being "disturbingly perfect."

Based on its imperfections, "Nip/Tuck" falls short of being the sort of signature show FX covets, but it's watchable and compelling for those who can get past the gore.

With a nip here and tuck there, it could even become one of those dramas for which it's worth making a regular appointment.

*

'Nip/Tuck'

Where: FX

When: Premieres tonight at 10

Rating: The network has rated it TV-MA-S-V-L (may be unsuitable for children under 17, with advisories for sex, violence and coarse language).

Production credits: Creator, director, Ryan Murphy; executive producers, Greer Shephard and Mike Robin.

Julian McMahon...Christian Troy

Dylan Walsh...Sean McNamara

Joely Richardson...Julia McNamara

John Hensley...Matt McNamara

Roma Maffia...Liz Winters

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