Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Doctors are In

Season Four of FX’s melodramatic black comedy Nip/Tuck begins on Sept. 5th. Disappointed with Season Three, and specifically by the finale, which included the revelation of the identity of the infamous Carver? Long-term disciples of the antics of Doctors McNamara & Troy (Dylan Walsh & Julian McMahon) felt betrayed, violated and used. We were all Ryan Murphy’s surgical tools, were we not? And yet we anxiously await S4, right? Of course we do. However drastically Nip/Tuck may have derailed, we'll give it another chance…as well we should.

Prior to the S3 train wreck, Murphy and Co. delivered two stellar seasons of some of the best high-concept television seen in years (and given the high quality of a lot of TV these days, that's saying something). When Nip/Tuck is “on”, nothing else is even remotely as satisfying. Not The Sopranos, not the recently laid-to-rest Six Feet Under – heck, not even the other Doctor who I gush about (no, not House).

Season One laid an ideal foundation which Season Two proceeded to bust into chunks by pulling everything and everyone apart, fracturing an already imperfect “family” into half a dozen splintered pieces. It’s not with any exaggeration that I say S2 of Nip/Tuck is one of the most slickly scripted, acted and filmed seasons of any TV show, ever. It was in fact so faultless that the S3 dip in quality was largely unsurprising. Even before it started, it was difficult to fathom that S2 could be topped, and certainly not by the season following it. Although it behooved the creators to give it a whirl, let’s face it: A show as edgy and daring as Nip/Tuck was destined to misfire sooner or later.

Like most viewers, I got sucked into the “Who’s the Carver?” zeitgeist – much of which was due to the expert seeding of the affair in the latter half of S2. Indeed, part of the fizzling of the storyline was due to it presiding over nearly half of the series. It built up to a “Who Shot J.R.?” level of suspense[1] . (Mildly noteworthy, though presumably unrelated, is Larry Hagman’s upcoming recurring presence.) The production team can’t really be blamed for riding the Carver gravy train and last year's finale delivered not only Nip/Tuck’s, but also FX’s biggest ratings ever with 5.7 million viewers. So while dramatically it may not have been sound, from a business standpoint someone had the right idea. Suffering through the Carver nonsense may have been painful, but it probably guaranteed us a few more years of the series.

I’ve not yet revisited S3, although I’ve gone back and viewed the last 30 or so minutes of the finale several times. It would be uncool to reveal the Carver’s identity to anyone who hasn’t seen it (so I won't), however I would like to posit a theory: S3 may very well work better if you know who the Carver is going into it. You’ll be spared the maddening moments of the finale in which you’re beating yourself up for spending too much time and thought on theories involving everyone but the obvious. Mind you, this theory doesn’t include S2's Carver buildup – that stuff works great not knowing a damn thing. But if you’re viewing Nip/Tuck on DVD, consider possibly spoiling yourself before spinning S3.

Some of Nip/Tuck’s strengths:

1) How rapidly it unfolds. What the show accomplishes in a single episode takes most series three installments to unveil; while a Nip/Tuck season may only be 13 episodes, by the time it ends it feels as if you’ve experienced 22.

2) What they’re able to get away with. For a series with commercial backing, it pushes more boundaries than anything on either HBO or Showtime. There’s something to be said for having just a few restrictions to work around and it makes for a creative atmosphere; you don’t always have to "see" a pair of tits to see a pair of tits. I often lovingly refer to it as “the most amoral show on TV”. [Note to the Parents Television Council: Just give up, OK? Or better yet…don’t. You folks give this show more publicity than FX can afford to.]

3) Murphy’s apparent ongoing mission to give jobs to actors whom nobody else seems to know what to do with. Joan Rivers, Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche, Jill Clayburgh, Kathy Baker, Julie Warner, Brittany Snow, Patti D’Arbanville, Geoffrey Lewis, J. E. Freeman & Brian Kerwin are just some of the familiar faces who’ve benefited from Murphy’s eye for utilizing underused talent. S4 looks to be taking the famous guest shots even further; in addition to Hagman, Catherine Deneuve, Richard Chamberlain, Melissa Gilbert, Kathleen Turner and Brooke Shields are only some of the names that you can - yet wouldn't - expect to see.

4) The plastic surgeries - as outrageous as they may often appear - are based at least in part on real-life cases.

5) Engaging storytelling and compelling characters, both of which keep you coming back week after week. Much of what makes the show work is rooted in a “What can they possibly do next?” mentality. It’s easy to focus on the frequent unpredictability of McMahon’s Dr. Troy, but the rest of the characters are just as wildly difficult to decipher. When a main character not named Troy fucks a RealDoll on the floor, one can safely say we’ve ventured far outside the boundaries of “been there, done that”.

[1] I vividly recall the J.R. phenom from back in the day, but I’ve got no memory whatsoever of the public’s reaction to the Kristin Shepard reveal, something I can only attribute to it being perceived of as anticlimactic...and perhaps in these cases, isn’t it always? [Note to Ryan Murphy – once you’re done with Hagman, consider looking up Mary Crosby for a guest shot.]