Tuned In

Nip/Tuck's Extreme Makeover

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Michael Becker/FX

Ah, Nip/Tuck. Let me tell you what I don’t like about yourself.

For a few seasons, Ryan Murphy’s arch, audacious plastic-surgery drama was one of the most ludicrously provocative treats on TV–not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure. There were murders, coupling of every possible combination of characters, self-circumcisions, feedings of bodies to alligators, serial slashers and mob bosses. As is often the case with such series, though, you get altitude sickness from going over the top so often. By season 4, I was so jaded with the characters and unshocked by the shocks that I scarcely watched.

Murphy apparently shared this restlessness, busting up the show at the end of last season by moving Drs. Troy and McNamara from Miami to L.A. Nip/Tuck isn’t the first show to try to freshen itself up with a cold reboot, but too often this strategy–think of Roseanne’s last season–is really a sign that the creator should have just killed the old show and started a new one.

Let’s start with the pluses of the change. The move gives Sean and Christian a natural, and believable challenge: they’re little fish in L.A., and getting noticed is not as easy as they think. (It takes almost a whole episode!) Also, by necessity the move puts the focus–at least for the first couple episodes–back on the two central doctors and not the freakshow of crazies and embittered family members they had gradually accumulated.

The problem with moving the show to Hollywood: it’s now a show about Hollywood. The beauty of the setting in Miami is that it gave Murphy a sexy surrogate city in which to write about the body-image issues that pollinate America from L.A., without having to cover the overcovered ground of Big Bad Shallow Tinseltown. Now, however, he’s succumbing to the Hollywood-writer temptation of Writing What You Know Too Well.

Not long into the first episode, Sean lands a gig as a medical consultant on a TV show… about plastic surgery. The drama, Hearts ‘N’ Scalpels, is, I’ll admit, a pretty acute satire of melodramatic TV hospital shows (Murphy, I’m guessing, is not too huge a fan of E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy). But satire works best when you know the satirist isn’t impervious to his own arrows. Unavoidably, in the context of Nip/Tuck, the spoof here becomes about how phony and compromised TV medical dramas are–medical dramas except for Nip/Tuck.

There’s even a storyline in which Hearts ‘N’ Scalpels remakes a Nip/Tuck plot (in which a woman has her lips reconstructed with flesh from her labia), and it becomes an extended fantasy of how badly Nip/Tuck would have been watered down if FX and Murphy had not stayed true to their vision. You can do this kind of TV-on-TV satire successfully; one of the best examples is Darren Star’s Grosse Pointe, in which the producer satirized exactly the kind of network show he himself worked on in Beverly Hills 90210. Here, though, the meta-joke is so smug I found it almost unwatchable.

Sometimes the joke does work, and Murphy even occasionally takes a jab at himself (there’s a line about the kind of desperate stunts TV shows pull in their fifth seasons.) Murphy is almost never not bitchily clever, but the ratio of funny to self-congratulatory is too low. (Yes, stars are shallow and insufferable. Yes, all those other TV medical shows are dumbed-down and phony. Thank you, FX and Ryan Murphy, for keepin’ it rill!) The show does get a slew of strong performances–albeit as broad as the Mississippi–from the likes of Oliver Platt, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Coolidge. But in the context of critiquing the show’s own business, its tendency toward preachiness and sanctimony about the cult of appearances, a problem even in Nip/Tuck’s best years, reaches positively Sorkinesque heights.

I’m not giving up on Nip/Tuck, but I know Murphy has more than one good show in him–because he already did another, Popular–and I just wish he had decided to start over by actually starting over. Some day he may write the scathing yet fresh sendup of Hollywood that’s he’s burning to make. But I don’t think he’ll manage by skin-grafting one onto Nip/Tuck.