"Tell me what you don't like about yourself."
When "Nip/Tuck" opened with that line in the summer of 2003, the television universe had no idea what it was in for. Alternatively emotional, outlandish, sexual, graphic, tongue-in-cheek and gothic, the story of two handsome Miami plastic surgeons (Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon) "sucking the champagne and caviar out of life" was a breakout hit, and not just in terms of its own fledgling network, FX.
With its cultural statement about society's obsession with youth and its underlying message that "beauty is a curse on the world," "Nip/Tuck" resonated with aging baby boomers and younger viewers. It was the No. 1 basic cable series in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic for five straight seasons, tying with FX's "The Shield" the first year. Its audience grew each of its first four seasons, peaking at 3.9 million in the fourth.
TV critics embraced it, celebrity and entertainment magazines fixated on its cast, and actors lined up for guest-star spots. In its freshman year, the show won the Golden Globe for best drama.
Because all things must end, a theme explored often in the Ryan Murphy series, the story of Sean McNamara and Christian Troy (Walsh and McMahon) signs off Wednesday night, after seven seasons and, notably, 100 episodes. Its series finale signals the end of the era, when basic cable networks proved they could compete with HBO in original programming -- FX with "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck," and USA with "Monk."
"It's the end of the first generation of cable originals that really made in-roads in television programming," said Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media. "There are very few shows that have helped identify a network and that strike a chord on a lot of different fronts. 'Nip/Tuck' really hit the zeitgeist because it was so topical. It has a very secure place as one of the most impactful shows of the past decade of television."
Murphy, a former journalist who created the series after a consultation with a plastic surgeon left him feeling like he'd spent time on a used car lot, remembers pitching the show to FX executives the same day "People" ran its first plastic surgery cover story. "Extreme Makeover" on ABC had recently premiered, and Murphy attributes "Nip/Tuck's" success to its ability to comment on a fad that was becoming mainstream.
"That period of time from 2004 to 2007, I always look at as really materialistic and luxury-driven -- that time before everything crumbled, before the real estate market crumbled and the financial market crumbled," Murphy said. " 'Nip/Tuck' perfectly mirrored the time we were in. What's interesting for me as a writer is that I wasn't trying to make a commentary about social mores in the country. I always thought the show was a satire about the country."
For much of its run, the show's audience saw eye-to-eye with Murphy and his writers. But as "Nip/Tuck" aged and its bizarre elements escalated -- how many times did McNamara almost die at the hands of nutty women? -- TV critics turned on it and viewers dropped out. Although it remained a steady and strong performer for FX, "Nip/Tuck" lost its pop culture appeal in its fifth season, dropping to 2.7 million in the 18-to-49 demographic, as other new series launched and succeeded, USA's "Burn Notice" and AMC's "Mad Men," among them.
In the short history of FX, "Nip/Tuck" also holds a special place because it validated the network's brand as the go-to place for dramas about flawed antiheroes and attracted young women, quickly building momentum for itself and for its network.
"One of the things that was most heartening to me about 'Nip/Tuck' was how odd it was and how original it was," said FX President and General Manager John Landgraf. "Obviously, it had elements that were very commercial -- a couple of good-looking guys in the lead and plenty of comedy and sexual intrigue. But it's really an uncompromising show in terms of the graphic nature of the surgeries and the original vision that Ryan brought to it. For FX, it was really exciting because it meant that we could support such uncompromising originality and still achieve great creative acclaim and commercial success."
Nearly seven years later, Murphy doesn't think he could sell "Nip/Tuck" today.
"Too much has changed and there's too much of a crackdown," he said. "The content for the first four seasons was so brazen and boundary-pushing. There's no way you'd get those scenes on the air today. For the good or the bad, those scenes launched a dialogue about what should or should not be on cable TV."
Wednesday night, when you hear Sean and Christian's trademark consultation icebreaker, "Tell me what you don't like about yourself," and the doors to their surgical offices close for the last time, fans might be shocked by the ending's subtlety. But that's a good thing.
"If you think about 'Nip/Tuck,' it had plastic surgery on child-molesting drug dealers, and alligators eating dead bodies, and John Hensley's character performing an auto circumcision," Landgraf said. "But it also had this really tender material. I think as Ryan sought to hold onto his audience and give his audience what he thought they wanted, the show got bigger and bigger over time. But I'm really glad he returned to the smaller and more tender side of the show's roots, because I think it was the only way to create a satisfying finale."