Tonight at 10, FX delivers the Season Four finale of its highest rated series, Nip/Tuck. Based on the 14 episodes presented thus far, this season’s subtitle should be “The Apology”, because after the disaster that was Season Three, that’s what was owed to long-term fans—and it’s largely what producer/writer Ryan Murphy and his band of twisted lunatics delivered.
Nip/Tuck’s charter mission—a commentary about the evils (and occasional benefits) of cosmetic surgery—has been all but abandoned at this point. There’s still at least one patient/surgery per episode, but most of them are played for laughs or shock value (and sometimes both) and rarely leave lasting impressions. After three seasons of exploring themes that were tidily summed up by the oft-repeated catchphrase of the Carver (“Beauty is a curse on the world”), maybe there isn’t much left to say? The show has often been accused of promoting sexist themes, which is a tad shortsighted, as it primarily holds up a mirror to what’s beneath the surface, that which cannot be fixed through botox injections and boob jobs: Nip/Tuck is really about people making atrocious life decisions (surgery being only the tip of that iceberg). On the rare occasion someone on Nip/Tuck makes a good decision, you can bet the positive fallout won’t last long, as they’ll soon enough make another bad one, dragging the character back to their moral drawing board. It’s impossible for anyone on this series to be content for any length of time, and the day someone finds true happiness, it’ll be time to close up shop.
To wit: Dr. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) has spent the bulk of the series running to and from his wife Julia (Joely Richardson). Sometimes they’re divorced, sometimes not; sometimes they’re together, sometimes not; sometimes they love each other, sometimes they just wanna claw each other’s eyes out. At the close of Season Three, the divorced couple, who’d let their mutual hatred lapse for one night, found out Julia was pregnant. And so they came together once again, and near the start of this season, Julia gave birth to a deformed son, and things momentarily ambled along as nicely as they could in the twisted universe of Nip/Tuck, until…Sean fucked the nubile young babysitter, Monica (Jennifer Hall). In a later episode, he ate one of Monica’s hash brownies, inexplicably obtaining an instantaneous LSD-like high resulting in whacked-out hallucinations, and realized how wrong it was to fuck the babysitter. Further down the road, after Monica started going off the rails and making weird threats, she was decapitated by a moving bus—right in front of Sean. Lest you think Julia was a mere victim throughout all of this, she was busy cultivating feelings for and a relationship with the other babysitter, a dwarf named Marlowe (Peter Dinklage)...whom she eventually fucked.
If you have never watched Nip/Tuck, you are probably thinking one of two things right about now: “I had no idea what I was missing!” or “The further degradation of television and humanity has just been nicely summed up in one paragraph.” Those on the first train of thought should go out and rent or buy the season-one DVD box set now. You’ll thank me. Those on the second train? This show is not for you, and if you still think it might be, then envision Melissa Gilbertgettin’ jiggy with her dog. Even though it wasn’t graphically depicted, I challenge anyone to view Episode 4.4, “Shari Noble”, and come away from it with the ability to get that image out of your head.
The farmyard antics of Laura Ingalls were only a minor diversion in season four. Unlike the previous two seasons, the current has differed by returning to its season-one roots in that there’s been no setup for a major revelation of a mystery in the season finale. There’s been a surplus of criminal activity, but viewers have been in on it the entire time. We know what’s going on, even when Drs. Troy and McNamara do not.
Further, the criminal element has largely been the deviously masterminded plan of Escobar Gallardo (Robert LaSardo), a Miami drug lord who plagued the two doctors back in season one. The pair eventually one-upped him via their surgical skills, and provided a clever means for his capture by the fuzz. Escobar stewed in prison for the past two and half years, biding his time and plotting his revenge, which he’s meticulously unveiled throughout the season. If the finale features a revelation, it will be the cumshot at the end of Escobar’s plan –- and how Sean and Christian will outwit him again…that’s assuming that they do, as I wouldn’t put it past Ryan Murphy to leave us hanging. The title of the episode is “Gala Gallardo”, apparently named after Escobar’s previously unseen wife. It’s difficult to tell if the Escobar reintroduction was part of some sort of Murphy Master Plan, however a major part of the Season Four storyline—involving organ trafficking—was quietly seeded in the Murphy-scripted season one finale.
The season divided neatly into two halves. The first featured mostly standalone stories, wrapped around the purchase of McNamara/Troy by billionaire Burt Landau (Larry Hagman) and his wife Michelle (Sanaa Lathan). Presumably this was done to appeal to new viewers unfamiliar with the longer-term aspects of the ongoing story. Nearly every episode unleashed some bizarre take on an actor whom we’d almost forgotten about: A barely recognizable Kathleen Turner as a phone sex operator in need of vocal chord reconstruction; Richard Chamberlain playing a loathsome queen bent on having his boy-toy lover’s face reconstructed so he’d appear as a younger version of Chamberlain; Rosie O’Donnell’s over-hyped two part arc as trailer trash who wins the lottery but loses everything else. Did I mention what they did with Melissa Gilbert? Just as I was beginning to tire of the formula, something happened…
The halfway point, Episode 8, “Conor McNamara”, saw the return of Ruth Williamson’s plastic surgery-addicted socialite Mrs. Grubman—who featured in several episodes of the first two seasons—now dying of cancer. Her final request? For Dr. Troy to operate on her corpse so that it would look ideal for her funeral (which, quite sadly, only Christian attended). In what was unquestionably a season highlight, Troy performed the surgery as a dream-like vision of Grubman sat on a nearby piano serenading Christian with “This Girl’s in Love With You”—all while Burt Bacharach tickled the ivories in cameo behind her. From this episode forward, the series reveled in nostalgia, finding unique ways of bringing back bits and pieces of Nip/Tuck’s past, but never gratuitously so and always serving the bigger picture. It became an expert weave on the part of the production team, and justified the season’s first half in the process.
I spent much time this season pondering the inspiration provided by the antics of Tom Cruise. Three major issues of everyone’s favorite couch jumper were addressed: Scientology, psychiatry and postpartum depression. So I pondered whether or not Cruise had time to watch the show –- after all, his on-again off-again friend Brooke Shields had a recurring role as a psycho therapist (literally). Shields’ Faith Wolper went so far as to have the words “Property of Christian Troy” tattooed on her ass, but this was only after she’d convinced Hagman’s Burt that the only proper way to deal with a spouse cheating with an employee is to blackmail the pair (Christian and Michelle) into having sex in front of him. Score One for Cruise’s feelings on therapy! Resident Nip/Tuck flake and former porn queen Kimber Henry (played by the always lovely Kelly Carlson) delved deeply into the Church of Scientology, dragging Christian, Sean & Julia’s son Matt (John Hensley) (no time to explain that one; see Season Two premiere for more details) along for the ride. I read Murphy say he wanted to portray the Church fairly, and given what little non-Scientologists know about the Church, I believe it was; how can the Church be portrayed as anything but a fringe lunatic cult when its inner workings are largely a secret? The apex of the storyline occurred last week when the Church’s godlike deity Xenu appeared to Kimber in a hallucination. Minus One, Tom –- do not pass Go! and do not collect $200. The postpartum issue was given far more sensitive treatment. It was clear that Julia was suffering from it, however she resisted medication –- and I’ve no idea what Tom would make of that. If nothing else, I hope he was entertained by it all. I refuse to believe the exploration of these themes was mere coincidence. As the season progressed, Nicole Kidman made it publicly known that she wanted to guest on the show; perhaps she wanted to get his attention.
Special mention must be made of Peter Dinklage’s Marlowe Sawyer, who was a true standout this season. I do not know if the role was written for him, but I cannot imagine any other actor of his stature playing the part. Dinklage achieved what many would consider a dramatic challenge: he made it not only OK for “normal” sized people to have sexual and romantic relations with a dwarf, but he (with plenty of help from Joely Richardson) also made it sexy and real (as opposed to his character in Threshold, which just made it obnoxious). When the pair feel for each other, we were right there with them, and when it didn’t work out, it was heartbreaking.
Despite all this window dressing, the dynamic duo of doctors remains the meat of the series. For all the attention paid to Julian McMahon’s bad-boy Christian Troy, for my guilty viewing pleasure, Walsh’s Sean McNamara stands as the show’s darkest, most satisfying portrayal. Christian is drawn in strict shades of black and white –- when he’s bad, he’s very, very bad, but when he is good, he’s positively angelic. Sean, however, is shown in deep shades of gray and possesses a conscience that continually wreaks havoc on a tortured soul. We were given a major revelation this season—again, in the episode “Conor McNamara”—that Sean was born with a facial deformity that led to the breakup of his parents and presumably to his career in plastic surgery. Most devastating to the character is that Julia has finally left not only him, but Miami altogether (the couple admitted to each other the affairs detailed above). She headed to New York with kids Annie and Conor in tow, and it’s anyone’s guess when they’ll be back. Some may think the temporary loss of Richardson will hurt the series, but really this is a breath of fresh air. As great as Richardson is, the ongoing McNamara push-me/pull-you has taken its toll on this fan. How refreshing it would be to see a fifth season sans Julia altogether, forcing Sean to find a life outside of any possible reconciliation.
I suspect things will get worse for Sean before they get better. Episode 4.11, “Conor McNamara 2026”, set in both the present and the titular year, was both reminiscence and reunion, and it showed Sean alone 20 years from now; he hadn’t even spoken to Julia since Conor was five. If the events seen in that episode are true -– and there was no indication they weren’t -– a certain tension has been excised from the series. No matter how much we might hope for the McNamaras to reconcile, we have seen that ultimately they do not. In the future, it’s feasible that this development has freed up both characters for greater and different dramatic possibilities.
But will there even be a Season Five? Season Four has provided an almost circular feel to the series, and in a recent interview, Ryan Murphy seemed unsure as to the possibility of the series continuing (although he may simply have been playing with the interviewer, as he frequently seems to do). Given the strength of the latter half of this season, if Nip/Tuck were to end here, they’d likely be going out on a high note. Yet it’s difficult to imagine FX letting go of its biggest cash and ratings cow, despite rumors that Murphy’s contract has expired and speculation that, given his blossoming movie career, he might not be inclined to return.
Can the series survive without Murphy? It’s impossible to say, and yet nearly each member of writing team has proven they’re a worthy candidate for showrunner -– and the series must have a writer calling the shots, as it’s a writer’s show. Were I in charge, and if Murphy were leaving, I’d seriously consider courting writer/co-producer Jennifer Salt(you know—Eunice from Soap...Grace from Sisters...Diana from Gargoyles???) to take hold of the creative reins. She’s been with the show since season one and her work has consistently proven her firm grasp on what makes Nip/Tuck tick. Episodes like “Joy Kringle” and “Shari Noble” showcase her ability to provoke and titillate while “Rhea Reynolds” and “Conor McNamara” demonstrate her understanding of the emotion necessary for the show’s survival. Perhaps of equal importance would be the value of having a female at the show’s helm and what might come of that.
A show as edgy and out there as Nip/Tuck seems destined to have a finite shelf life. Both Christian and Sean’s aging has been addressed on numerous occasions from a variety of angles, and yet they’ve both thus far avoided any major cosmetic enhancement. They’re getting older and resisting what’s provided their bread and butter—and it probably goes without saying the actors won’t be game for face-lifts and hair plugs in order to keep the drama going. Beyond that, I’d best avoid making predictions. For all I know, I’ll be coming to this talkback later tonight and proclaiming, “Ignore those last few paragraphs. The fat lady just sang and the doors of McNamara/Troy are closed for business.” Whenever the series ends, I like the idea of having to scrape my jaw up off the floor and make an appointment for some reconstructive surgery.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.