“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”
-Jesus, Matthew 18:8
“Your right eye is half-a-millimeter too high,” Dr. Christian Troy informs an aspiring model during the pilot-episode of Nip/Tuck. “And you have an Irish nose,” he quickly adds as if the physiognomic comment of a moment previous had not been sufficiently condemnatory. But don’t worry: he can fix it. He’s a sculptor of life, a certified magician, a facial thaumaturge, and a psychotherapist of the highest order – he’s a high-class plastic surgeon.
The very same episode features a drug-dealer shelling out $300,000 for a clandestine face-change operation; later we see surgical procedure turn to a fraternal assassination, turn to a bloodbath in which the bathing agent is not blood but adipose. Those who saw that pilot episode must have realized that here was something new and fresh and hilarious on television. A whole new horizon of superficiality had become possible.
Imagine a show in which it’s OK for every character to be an asshole. Imagine a
show whose characters are largely unbound by norms of decorum or propriety. It’s not that they’re amoral. It’s just that for the characters of Nip/Tuck, the inner protestations of conscience are not so much negative conditions of action as aesthetic embroidery for an irresistible criminality. Imagine a show for which verisimilitude is at most a frantic afterthought. Imagine a show in which characters don’t make good choices, or even mediocre ones. Imagine a show situated at that controversial and ugly crossroads of modern life, the plastic-surgery salon. Now imagine the creative freedom, dramatic potential, and hilarious capacity such a show would possess.
Nip/Tuck operates according to the same picaresque structure which undergirds dramas like E.R. and The O.C.: a recurring cast of familiar characters tackles episodic crises du jour in the foreground while exploring persistent fault-lines, conflicts, and tensions in the background over a season or beyond. However, Nip/Tuck is neither encumbered by the moral imperative of saving lives and atmosphere of perpetual emergency which frame E.R. nor hampered by the cloying sentimentality which afflicts The O.C.. Here’s a synopsis of pretty much every episode of Nip/Tuck:
Patient: [requests frivolous, unethical, or just crazy surgery]
Dr. McNamara: [upset] We can’t do that!
Dr. Troy [smiles] Or can we…?
Dr. McNamara: [bored] Whatever.
The range of procedures performed on this show truly runs the gamut in terms of patient personality, physical site of operation, degree of frivolity or necessity, and music-choice accompanying the surgery-montages which appear as frequently as commercials. Here are some medical anecdotes from Nip/Tuck which old Hippocrates might not countenance, but Nielsen sure would:
1. McNamara’s girlfriend is worried that the inscrutable lines of her palm bode ill for their relationship. McNamara, having attentively listened to her concerns, allays them by surgically connecting her love-line to her wisdom-line.
2. Two collegiate twins are tired of being mistaken for one another. Since things such as not attending the same university or not wearing nearly identical outfits are apparently too onerous, they elect to pursue the only reasonable option: expensive cosmetic surgery. Later, Christian beds them both at the same time.
3. Performing breast-reduction surgery on a female lawyer at the behest of one of her multiple-personalities, the soi-disant “Sassy,” who just wants to be a normal eight-year-old girl.
4. In walks Natasha Charles, an attractive blind woman whose clothes are suspiciously well color-coordinated. A hypertrophy of the olfactory sense has allowed her to profit as a perfume-designer, and now she wants plastic surgery in order to net a handsome blind man. Later, Christian beds her.
5. Helping an indigent woman fulfill her dream of “looking like J-lo.” I don’t remember whether Christian has sex with this one, but really it’s overwhelmingly probable.
Character-wise the central antithesis of the show lies between the two principal doctors. Dr. Sean McNamara is a stereotypical doctor: boring, workaholic, family-man, principled, etc. Dr. Christian Troy embodies a different type: turbulent, relaxed, bachelor, pleasure-principled. Yet for all their differences, both doctors are handsome, tanned, and athletic. Sean’s wife Julie once dreamed of becoming a pediatrician but deferred that dream while Sean was in medical school.
Other characters include Liz, the lesbian anesthesiologist who offers a gruff voice of wisdom and general disapproval; Sean and Julie’s troubled and occasionally violent son, Matt; and Kimber, Christian’s on-again off-again, make-up-in-the-form-of-a-three-way girlfriend. ‘Kimber,’ as her non-standard name suggests, is an idiot, but as the seasons progress, she becomes stronger, more emotionally independent, and also a director of hit pornographies.
“Do thou amend thy face, and I’ll amend my life”
-Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1
Unfortunately for Bardolph, the target of Falstaff’s quip, he lived in a rude age unapprised of rhinoplasty and dermabrasion. Nevertheless, Falstaff’s explicit conjugation of the physical and personal is apt from the show’s standpoint. The premise and locale of Nip/Tuck allow for an extraordinary capacity of physical metaphor. Inevitably the medical transformation achieved mirrors or opposes some emotional or personal transformation either actualized or desiderated.
At the beginning of every consultation Sean and Christian instruct each patient, “Tell us what you don’t like about yourself.” The request is ambiguously poised between a diagnostic program of cosmetic modification and a personal critique of life-change. It is telling that the patient always responds not with a direct proposal of surgery but with a complicated narrative of his or her life so far and how this surgical procedure will dovetail with its new personal direction.
In one episode the doctors confront “Mama Boone,” a massive (1000+ lbs.) woman. Mama Boone hasn’t gotten up from her couch in three years, and her skin itself has grown fused into its synthetic fibers. Once the early signs of necrotizing fasciitis appear, however, it is crucial that she be removed from the couch immediately and the infected flesh excised. In her everything sedentary, hesitative, repressed, and stagnant in the lives of the characters is congealed and made flesh.
Kraken-like, she strikes both doctors into personal realization before rapidly departing to a final triplex of adjacent grave plots. Sean realizes that he can’t dilate his marriage’s separation-process into perpetuity; it’s time to move on, time to leave his mental couch. And Christian realizes that he can’t sulk forever just because he was attacked and raped by a serial killer (seriously, this actually happened).
Sigmund Freud, in his early essay The Aetiology of Hysteria, begins to articulate the psychosomatic causality which will inform his mature psychology. Freud claims (at this time) that every hysterical symptom is the physical terminus of an associative chain leading back to some childhood sexual encounter.
Therapeutic practice takes the form of a guided excavation of associations and memories until at the right moment the cathectic energy of the transference-relationship may be turned to devastating use and dissolve the latent factor – like the calculated blow of the osteotome with which a surgeon deliberately re-breaks a nose in order to reset it.
However, Freud never considered the most obviously direct kind of therapy. That is to say, if thine nose offends thee, get a rhinoplasty as opposed to a psychotherapist. Whereas Freud described the physical symptom as the apparent compromise of a latent desire, Nip/Tuck installs the surgical procedure as the teleological sign-post towards a new life.
There is one episode in particular (3.1) which stands out as a tour de force of intricate and incredible metaphor. Sean and Christian are at the cusp of professional dissolution. They have just one last pro bono procedure to perform: separating conjoined twins who vocally comment every ten seconds on how much they love each other and will regret being disjoined. Oh, and they have to share a tiny dorm room the night before the surgery.
During the procedure both twins die, but the stronger twin only dies only because she stipulated a do-not-resuscitate clause in the case of her sister’s prior decease. In addition, the twins are sown back together as a funerary arrangement in accordance with their will. Sean and Christian, touched by this morbid gesture of consanguinity and concretized spectacle of togetherness, decide to give their own professional union and friendship another shot. Also, Sean hires a prostitute to have sex with both of them while responding to the name of “Julia.”
The miracle of Nip/Tuck is that despite its Grand-Guignol hijinks and credibility-straining antics the show actually manages to put across a compelling portrait of the turmoil and folly of modern life. The “Mama Boone” episode – despite its freakish and teratological component – is genuinely touching and pitiable. One actually empathizes with her as she recounts the alarming crescence of her fear and torso. Reminiscent of the best parts of Balzac, Nip/Tuck has a knack for presenting what is most wretched, pathetic, funny, and endearing about humanity.