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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Getting real in L.A.

Moving the setting of 'Nip/Tuck' gives the FX series -- and the city -- a lift.

October 30, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Ten minutes into the season premiere of "Nip/Tuck" and you have to wonder what those deeply disturbed plastic surgeons were doing wasting four seasons, and all that unexplored sexual tension, in Miami when they so clearly belong in Los Angeles.

Leaving behind all past heartache and folly, Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) and Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh and no relation) are starting over, together again. But if they thought they could get by with a bit more Armani and some rented tropical fish, they were sadly mistaken. They aren't relocating to another city; they're entering another world, a land, it must be said, that is finally getting the attention it deserves from one of its hometown industries. The new "Nip/Tuck" is just one of a panoply of shows that shrug off the "Baywatch" and "Beverly Hills 90210" caricature to create a Los Angeles residents actually recognize.

Which doesn't mean L.A. can't take a joke. At first it's hard going for our Miami transplants. All dressed up with no one to cut, Christian and Sean rattle around their sleek new offices, cowed by the L.A. jungle until they meet a woman in a bar. That woman turns out to be Lauren Hutton, lined and lovely ("uncut flesh," is the comment when they first see her), who uses her smoky voice and world-weary smile to create the very image of a local icon -- Fiona McNeil, super publicist. "You have a small talent that you've made the most of," she tells one client reluctant to go under the knife. She is, as they say, just what the doctor ordered. After giving the boys a quick lecture on the chemical properties of heat and exposure, she gets them a gig as consultants on "Hearts and Scalpels," a show about, you guessed it, a hotshot cosmetic surgeon.

Bringing the show to L.A. really is a truly brilliant move on creator Ryan Murphy's part, lightening its increasingly heavy heart and dishing up an almost embarrassment of riches. Between their patients -- early episodes include a studio head who relies on the services of a dominatrix to absolve him of crimes, including firing his best friend in an e-mail, as well as competing Marilyn Monroe impersonators -- and their work on the show, Troy and McNamara quickly slide far below the city's epidermis and into its twitching glands and organs. (It's worth watching the premiere for Oliver Platt's neurotic director alone.)

Sending up Hollywood is not a new shtick, but it's not as easy as it looks. Too sharp and you appear vicious and bitter, too flat-footed and the show goes lame. The show's signature sardonic humor seems a perfect fit for the genre -- there is an air of wallowing at times, but it is a darkly joyful wallow. Among the various welts, the "Nip/Tuck" creators clearly know of which they speak, and there is as much love and longing in their hearts as there is venom in their sting.

But then L.A. always brings out the best and worst in writers. Like a beautiful blond who turns out to be a brain surgeon, Los Angeles is easy to stereotype and difficult to understand. It does not fit on an island or even a fold-out map. People will still try to cue it visually with a silhouette of palm trees and girls in thongs rollerblading on the beach, but they just wind up looking stupid. L.A. isn't the easiest city to evoke in a television show. It's too far-flung and disconnected, has a less distinct literary footprint than, say, New York or Philadelphia or even Baltimore.

Certainly there have been shows that have illuminated gleaming facets of the city before -- "American Family" comes to mind, and "Six Feet Under" captured it, down to the cramped parking at Trader Joe's -- but despite its place at the center of the television industry, Los Angeles has often gotten short shrift when it comes to the poetry of the medium. No longer. It's almost as if writers have thrown off the shackles of East Coast myopia, have decided, as a group, that it is OK to show the world that there is more to L.A. than the Hollywood sign, Rodeo Drive and Venice Beach; that Culver City is an actual neighborhood, that downtown can no longer be defined by City Hall and skid row.

So we have been treated to the surprising and increasing pleasure of our city portrayed in all its colorful complexity this season on new shows as diverse as "Life," "Chuck," "Moonlight," "Private Practice" and "Californication," as well as returnees including "Nip/Tuck" and "Shark." None rely on the lotus-eating boilerplate of yore. The palm frond fringed, babes-in-convertible templates of "Beverly Hills 90210" or "Melrose Place" or "L.A. Law" are clearly passe.

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