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Classic Television Rundown: Nip/Tuck, Season One, Episode 1: "Pilot"

Season One, Episode 1: "Pilot"
Written and Directed by Ryan Murphy

"Tell me what you don't like about yourself." -Sean McNamara
"Tell me what you like about yourself." -Sean McNamara
When Qualler proposed we start doing classic TV recaps here on The Blogulator, my wide-eyed joy at the prospect soon morphed into a frenzied confusion. Simply put, aside from the usual suspects (The Wire, Lost, Mad Men), I at first couldn't think of a show that I distinctly consider my own. Now not only is TV a medium that is largely best enjoyed amongst group viewings, but also, and partly because of that unifying feeling that all our favorite stories tend to emit, I have almost always been late to the party, so to speak, reveling in the plot twists and character developments of shows that my friends have turned me onto, rather than seeking out my own to become obsessed with. Granted, the latter part of that statement's changed in recent years, with my love for Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars ruling a large section of my pop culture brain, but I didn't feel I was far enough removed from taking in those shows yet to go back to them as if they were "classics" (though I most certainly will in the future if we keep this feature up).

No, instead I have, after hours of considering all the DVDs and online re-watching options around me, to focus on a show that I most certainly don't love anymore (especially its later seasons, which I haven't even seen) but did love voraciously at one time, and actually, one that I believe was the first drama that I considered addictive. And frankly, even after going through the pilot for the first time in seven years (with much trepidation I might add), I'm not ashamed of it, and you shouldn't be either, other people who watched Nip/Tuck back in the day. In comparison, even, Nip/Tuck is still leagues better than creator Ryan Murphy's other endeavors, including the ugly, misanthropic film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, and of course, the populist TV behemoth to end all populist TV behemoths, Glee. In actuality, the show about two best friend plastic surgeons is somewhere between his two other main efforts (one a massive failure, the other the most successful new television program in years). I haven't seen the WB's Popular, his first creation, but my odd curiosity with this man is making me wonder if I should remedy that.

But before we get ahead of ourselves talking about the big picture, though, let's focus on the actual episode in question. For dozens of episodes to come, every opening shot will contain the first line quoted above to a different patient by either Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh of Congo!) who plays the seemingly stereotypical uptight by-the-books half of the medical practice or whom he shares the practice with: the seemingly trite morally bankrupt playboy best friend Christian Troy (Julian McMahon of NBC's Profiler!). Of course these light outlines of characters are just that on the surface. (And here I shall introduce the phrase "in true Nip/Tuck fashion", which will surely be used multiple times throughout the recap of these first two seasons. Whether I continue after that point will depend on how this goes.) In true Nip/Tuck fashion, the pilot attempts to stuff in as many overly dramatic characters arcs as humanly possibly in an already overstuffed plot-wise 67 minute premiere. It does this, I assume, primarily to assure us that our superficial (get it?) protagonists are actually deeply complicated creatures of habit and impulse and that we're not going to be bored if we decide to invest ourselves in their lives on this series.

Well, Murphy's mostly right on this one, at least for a while. When I first decided I would go back and re-watch Nip/Tuck, my stomach almost immediately turned at the thought of having to watch Sean whine in every episode and watch Christian do something selfishly idiotic in ever episode. Luckily, that synesthetic feeling subsided pretty quickly and I remembered how solid these two main characters actually are (once again, at least for the first two seasons). Sure the whole opposites attract thing gets amplified to the point of ridiculous at least once every episode, but there's so much implied history and forward traction in their bromance that it's no wonder that the term wasn't invented with the advent of this show instead of Apatow movies. Really the fact that the show begins in medias res is its most affecting benefit because it allows the tension between Christian, Sean, and Sean's family (wife Julia who is also Christian's ex-girlfriend for whom he still has residual feelings for, and kids Matt and Annie, who both think Christian's way cooler than Sean) to be palpable and explosive rather than coyly build.

After all, this is a show about Miami and modern fantasy-centric America, so I admit that its premise always clamored for more than a little soap opera-y feel to it. That Murphy's mostly able to control this without it dampening the actual emotional impact of the characters' crises is laudable, if not constantly wavering between meaningful television and gaudy television. And while I don't quite think it's self-aware enough to be a scathing critique of the viewer's own fantasy drama impulses and voyeuristic tendencies, the Nip/Tuck pilot succeeds at introducing all the social critique within the characters' lives rather well. It takes as much guts as it does insensitivity to play "Paint It Black" while McNamara and Troy perform a grotesque face lift on someone they will later find out is a pedophile but already know is at least to some degree involved with a drug cartel. And it takes as much boldness as it does brusqueness to have a scene in your first episode in which one of the main characters' wives is using a line like this one: "You're a surgeon, Sean, and on your watch a death has occurred. The death of you and me."

And while I'm sure I'll complain about her later, Joely Richardson is the one that makes this pilot keep from fraying and self-destructing due to its testosterone-fueled dick-measuring contest between two far less competent actors, Walsh and McMahon. Yes, with reductive analysis, she's just the center of a soon-to-develop love triangle (so obvious from Christian's "your breasts are perfect" speech that it makes me second-guess how much camp has been in this show since the beginning), but she's also what grounds the craziness of the show, and not just because she can deliver badly written lines without batting an eyelash. She herself is being driven crazy by the perverted version of perfection that Sean and Christian have been attempting to capture since day one, possibly more so than them because she has to sit idly aside it all, but she is also driven to keep all three of her men in check (the introduction of Matt's circumcision plot line gave me goosebumps for future recaps already) throughout the series as well. Right now she's a footnote, but even in her little melodramatic actions like flushing Annie's gerbil down the toilet right after screaming "I'm not going to clean up any of your shit anymore!" she's setting the groundwork for what's to come.

I'd go into more detail about the plot at hand in this first episode, including Christian's initial rebuke of soon-to-be-main-character Kimber (Minnesota's own Kelly Carlson) because she's an eight, not a ten, Sean's first of many attempts to disband the McNamara/Troy partnership, and the death of the aforementioned pedophile Silvio Perez on the operating table, which helps initiate the meeting of the season's big bad, his former boss Escobar Gallardo (the still quite terrifying Robert LaSardo), but I've already filled this post to the brim with enough general thoughts and reactions to keep me on track to bringing you a recap on numero dos very soon.

Grade: B+

Other memorable quotes:
  • "Drop that habla no English bullshit. It doesn't add to my confusion at all; it highlights your own." -Christian Troy
  • "I don't want to be pretty. I want to be better." -Kimber
  • "When you stop striving for perfection, you might as well be dead." -Christian Troy
  • "What we do here is let people externalize the hate they feel about themselves." -Sean McNamara
  • "Trivial? This is my life. For once, give me something that I need." -Matt McNamara
  • "I think you're confusing Dr. Troy's pleasant and very thorough bedside manner with real emotion." -Sean McNamara
  • "Thank you for becoming so repugnant to me that I am finally going to take charge of my life...starting today, I'm transforming MYSELF!"" -Sean McNamara
  • "I don't want Annie to have to go to public school, Julia." -Christian Troy
  • "You gave me nothing. I made this life with you." -Julia McNamara
  • "This isn't change; it's a whim." -Julia McNamara
  • "So I hear your marriage jumped the shark last week. My condolences." -Christian Troy

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  1. Blogger DoktorPeace | 11:36 AM |  

    The thing I most remember from this pilot, and the first season in general, is the episodic surgery montage. For some reason I initially thought this was a semi-informative show about plastic surgery, and these extended, detailed scenes of each week's procedures kept me believing for a while that all the drama was a cover-up for educational entertainment. It was like a new genre of television that was way more fun than college, but just as sexy and confusing.

  2. Blogger qualler | 11:43 AM |  

    Excellent write-up. I'm excited to re-watch/re-live these episodes to see if they really hold up as I remember and look for the teetering points for when Ryan Murphy eventually lets it all go crazy/shocking instead of crazy/shocking/melodramatic/kinda touching. I think the first signs of wackiness are the Escobar Gallardo business.

    I can attest to the final season sorta barely making up for the terribleness that was seasons three, four, and the last part of season five (and the first part of the final season). But, by then, the show pretty much stopped trying to be a serialized show and went mostly standalone. And when Joely Richardson's character became pointless (probably some time in S3 or S4), that's when the show really fell apart. You're right -- she was, in the early eps, the glue that held the mostly hammy writing together.

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