On TV: Nip/Tuck


Nip/Tuck's cosmetic overhaul throughout its six seasons often seemed like a facelift from hell. The sinister electricity of its first years warped into delirium; swaggering surgeons Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) have come close to dying multiple times, and they've both been pursued by enough serial killers that the whole "Carver" arc seems bland in comparison. The strange mania the show has come to embrace since its Golden Globe-decorated first season is finally mitigated in its seventh (and final) season opener, a funny, tight episode of mischief and not-so-rose-colored nostalgia.

In fact, tonight's new episode of the FX staple entitled "Dan Daly" sees the show in rare, restrained form. Sean and Christian have won a prestigious medical award, but an early montage shows Sean pulverizing the glass honor with a sledgehammer. Before we can discover what that's all about, we're introduced to the titular man, an unhinged wheelchair-bound mental patient who compulsively self-mutilates thanks to a genetic condition. Our first glimpse of Dan is a bracing one -- he has chewed off his own lips, bitten off his own fingers, and within seconds he reaches for something to stab himself midway through his conversation with the surgeons. It's not easy to watch, but it's real enough to be great TV as your peek from behind your hands -- especially since McMahon and Walsh play the scene with elan and the offhand comic timing that has always textured this series.

Sex is another abrasive issue in the season opener, and a fun one too. Christian's exploits would be enough to get him or anyone in enormous trouble, but he brushes off one of his paramour's major revelations (that I won't disclose here, but get ready for it) with a detachment only he has mastered. Sean's newest fling -- a cliched romp on a plane that even Christian tries to talk him out of -- earns him direct comeuppance and a visit with Homeland Security. The disparity between Christian's flippant reactions to his own behavior and Sean's continued moral superiority have always lent this show a singular relationship, but the character assault that both end up enduring is especially titillating. Funny enough, the episode ends with brush-up between the doctors that seems to upend the episode's libidinous momentum, but for good reason: We inspect the skepticism sewn into Sean and Christian's camaraderie. A scorn reveals itself that is heated, dangerous, and -- for all of Nip/Tuck's streamlined good looks -- unembellished. It's why you first tuned in.

Even cast members have acknowledged that Nip/Tuck's "moment as passed," as one Los Angeles Times article put it. But longtime wayward fans will find something to mine in this engrossing, unpretentious episode. Case in point: Sean reflects on his college experience with Christian, comparing his collegiate savoir-faire to the conniving taskmaster gusto we know of him. Through stellar flashbacks, not only do we witness the beginning of one of the most unusual dramatic friendships in primetime, but we start to reevaluate how we ever understood it before. Though Nip/Tuck has barely survived a menu of disfiguring procedures in its seven years, tonight's episode feel less like a surgical contortion and more like a clean, long bath. It's a surface change you can immediately feel proud of.