Every decade gets the TV doctors it deserves. Consequently, FX's racy 2003 drama Nip/Tuck gives audiences a perma-tanned antihero who snorts cocaine off a model's immaculately toned ass, engages in shady business practices, uses his client base as a personal harem, and views biology as a sketchy first draft to be toyed with and reconfigured at will. The dashing Julian McMahon plays that shady Miami-vice magnet, and he makes his cad as sleazily charming as he is morally reprehensible. Dylan Walsh co-stars as McMahon's more upstanding but still ethically compromised partner and best friend, a father and husband stumbling through a series of personal and professional dilemmas. The two friends run a struggling plastic-surgery practice in Florida, offering clients the opportunity to reconcile their outward appearances with their innermost desires.
In the show's first season, which has just been released on DVD, Walsh wrestles with a midlife crisis and an extramarital affair with a cancer-stricken client, McMahon tries to leave his tomcatting ways behind, and Walsh's frustrated wife (Joely Richardson) juggles family, a tardy return to college, and advances from McMahon and a strapping fellow student. A potent cocktail of sleaze and substance, Nip/Tuck traffics in sex, sensationalism, drugs, voyeurism, and queasily explicit plastic-surgery gore that's far more disturbing than any of the series' more conventional violence.
Going too far is essential to Nip/Tuck's aesthetic. The show's modus operandi is to plunge headlong into the hyperbolic realm of soap operas, Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, Quentin Tarantino-style pulp, and tabloid muck, then double back into genuine human emotion. A typical subplot features Walsh and Richardson's hormone-crazed teenage son (pouty, model-pretty John Hensley) suffering when his girlfriend not only cheats on him, but cheats on him with a fellow cheerleader, while both are wearing their uniforms. Such showboating flourishes represent the storytelling equivalent of an elaborate three-minute touchdown dance, but the show redeems itself by eking genuine pathos out of the lipstick-lesbian cheerleader's doomed schoolgirl crush on her merely bi-curious counterpart.
Nip/Tuck is gloriously unafraid of operatic gestures and Grand Guignol touches, but its core relationships are drawn with surprising depth and subtlety. It also benefits from indelible guest performancesnot just from Geoffrey Lewis, as a boozy surgeon reduced to performing sex-change operations in an unhygienic dive, but also from Joey Slotnick, who's extremely funny as a greasy rival surgeon with all of McMahon's vices and none of his charm.
In one of the DVD's documentaries, creator, writer, and executive producer Ryan Murphy says he set out to create a "depthy show about superficiality." Made-up words aside, he more than succeeded, and in the process, he crafted an addictive, darkly funny drama about the ugly things people do in the name of beauty.