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Classic Television Rundown: Nip/Tuck, Season One, Episode 3, "Nanette Babcock"

Nip/Tuck Season One, Episode Three: "Nanette Babcock"
Written by Ryan Murphy
Directed by Lawrence Trilling

"You think you made me, with your scalpel, and your collagen, but I made you." -Mrs. Grubman, to Christian
It should make sense that the third episode of a serial drama is often the point of no return. You've been introduced in the pilot, you've been thrown a few curve balls in both plot and character development in the sophomore effort in an attempt to retain your future interest, and then finally things settle down in the third installment and you, the viewer, decides whether or not you're willing to accept the lives of these people or not. Either you're comfortable there without being too bored or you feel just a bit awkward and out of place there, but not enough to scare you away. As you may have guessed, Nip/Tuck is more an example of the latter. You sit and writhe through the characters' narcissism because there is a sliver of truth to each of them inside all of us, even if it's ugly and something we don't want to admit. Also, of course you're curious to see who's going to eff whom and who's going to eff over whom.

And while this episode satisfies those cravings in an almost procedural fashion (Matt finds out his girlfriend likes girls in addition to or instead of his non-circumcised junk, Christian almost sleeps with an old crabby rich lady, said old crabby rich lady gets a particularly grotesque on-screen tummy tuck procedure), we are largely left with an episode that is more about finding comfort in these characters' skins than it is about keeping us queasy and lusting for more weirdness. Sure, it even opens with (or gets out of the way) the joke of a Michael Jackson impersonator trying to get just one more plastic surgery to keep up with the real-life track record of his idol, but still, after that limp shock value skitters away, the soul of the show starts to slowly rear its head with the introduction of aforementioned crabby old rich lady, Mrs. Grubman. This is a character that will, for both better and worse, haunt the show for a few too many seasons, but at its outset, seemed like a perfectly fine conduit for Julian McMahon to inject humanity into his portrayal of Christian Troy.

As has been said before here on the Classic Television Rundown recaps of Nip/Tuck, the self-loathing and self-obsessed Christian is easily the more sympathetic character of the two leads, even when the more neurotic and annoying Sean is clearly meant to be the more "normal" of the two. At first I just assumed it was because the acting was better, but this episode kind of re-opened my eyes that while that's sometimes true, it's actually more about how we are forced to root for Christian as the underdog in this race of life Sean's kind of set up against his will. We want him to learn, change, and overcome, sure, but we also want him to succeed not because of his partnership with Sean, but despite it. You see, Sean's holding Christian down throughout the show, but especially here, and we feel smothered along with him. Sean's clearly hired this psychiatrist Grace Santiago just to make himself feel more noble, whereas Christian wants her out because he doesn't want judgment around his place of business, which is a much more logical line of reasoning, even if it isn't completely sound.

So while it is one of the more subverted plot lines in "Nanette Babcock", it is the one that helps us slip in between the friendship (and/or sometimes rivalry) of these two men and feel at home, even as it has us biting our fingernails. When the titular character comes in asking for multiple surgeries to feel pretty for her upcoming high school reunion, we side with Christian, the simple man who very plainly believes that he can help her with plastic surgery. Underneath he may secretly realize he can't help her change in the way a person should change to feel empowered, but he accepts the constraints of society and empathizes with Nanette to the point of wanting to take her money and do the job, not so that she changes permanently as a person from sad to happy, but so that she experiences the grand illusion of false happiness if only for a moment, because it feels a hell of a lot better than permanent sadness. McMahon plays him with just enough greed and hesitation that we get all that just from his interview with Nanette while psychiatrist Grace Santiago attempts to intervene. And he's able to come back to it throughout, even when he has to bend to Sean's whims in order to keep the business on its feet and not let his friend go off on another useless road trip of the soul.

Unfortunately, here's where the emotional and psychological depth of Nip/Tuck ends for the week. John Hensely tries his damnedest to make us care about his teenage turmoil as he cries on the other side of his bedroom door after finding out that his girlfriend is cheating on him with a fellow cheerleader and dad (Sean) is so oblivious that two seconds earlier he can't even notice that there's something disturbingly off about him. While Matt definitely has more misadventures to get into before we can do any kind of identification with him, Murphy attempts to flesh out Sean's character, and while no emotional connection is made between him and viewer yet, he at least succeeds at complicating his character without having him make any crazy rash decisions as he'd done in the first two drama-tastic eps. From trying to bribe communication out of his son with the carrot of a shiny new circumcision (professional surgeons and all!) to placing the blame for leaving a metal instrument inside a patient on anesthesiologist Liz, Sean's proving to be quite the bastard at this point in the show. While it's not stirring, it's at least baby steps toward expanding his character beyond the nice-guy-lost-in-a-cruel-world routine.

Then there's just the disappointing. Julia, arguably the third most important character in the show, is relegated to three or four short scenes in which she gets a door-knocking from the police about improper disposal of an animal (the daughter's gerbil down the toilet in panic attack mode) and then way too suddenly decides that instead of letting things make her angry, she's going to go back to med school after all, guldarnit! And throughout all of this she's doe-eyed and hugging Sean, even as Joely Richardson does everything she can to try to convey some kind of inner demons still rustling around inside. It's good that she does this, because her character does get more fair play later, but at this point, it just feels like she's getting brushed aside in favor of...

Mrs. Grubman. Man how I have mixed feelings about her. Her place here is clearly to mirror that of Nanette and the general theme of the episode, which is of trying to beautify oneself not only for self-satisfaction, but also to gain the attention of others. This is indeed the infamous episode in which Christian attempts to sleep with Mrs. Grubman (something she can't help but admit she's always wanted) in exchange for her not suing the practice for Sean accidentally leaving a metal instrument inside of her, but while he's ready and willing, she of course suddenly devolves into a sexless widow who only wants somebody close to her so she can try to remember what it's like to be laying next to her dead hubby. After all, he (and the fizzy connection she always felt when she got to look into Christian's eyes post-surgery) was the reason she felt compelled to get some many nose jobs and face lifts.

The big problem here, aside from the snotty ones trickled throughout that paragraph, is that Murphy begins a trend that he has not shaken so much as amplified (with Glee) throughout his career. He wants to have it both ways. He wants to get deep and melancholic, almost to the point of trite, but still wink-wink-nudge-nudge the whole while, making jokes about Christian and Grubman's age difference and eww how gross she is. And most of the time, McMahon can balance this, as expressed above, but honestly, Ruth Williamson cannot. And it's not even really her fault. She's really good in the next scene, in fact, at totally brushing off all notions of seriousness and demanding free plastic surgery for life instead of Christian's affection, sexual or otherwise. But the jostling back and forth between the over-the-top and the valid ruminations on image and change is going to be as much of a tug-and-pull between the viewers and the characters as plastic surgery can be on the patients and their loved ones that they are trying to (re-)connect to through the process.

Grade: B-

Other memorable quotes:
  • "If there's something about your body you want changed, one of those nipple rings--whatever, we talk it out before you try self-mutilation." -Sean, to Matt after his attempted self-circumcision.
  • "Kiss my tanned waxed ass, Sean." -Christian
  • "You gonna take the opinion of Salsa Spice over me?" -Christian, to Sean, about their vaguely Latina psychiatrist Grace. (To which Jerksica says, "Ooh antiquated AND racist!")
  • "Matt, have you urinated-- yet...today?" Sean, walking in on Matt with Vanessa just about to make-a-da-sex, in typical awesome awkward fashion
  • "I didn't even dance at my own wedding." -Sean (No one's surprised, Sean.)
  • "Hurry up, we have a his 'n' her lipo in half an hour!" -Sean
  • "Loosen your braids and take a look, sweetheart. Do I look like a terrorist?" -Mrs. Grubman, to airport security
  • "Ironic, isn't it, that years after my enduring your irresponsibility lectures that you are the one that screwed us over." -Christian, to Sean
  • "Because I'm ugly, I'm naturally a crazy bitch too, am I right?" -Nanette, to Grace's accusation of her vandalizing Christian's car

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  1. Blogger qualler | 7:01 AM |  

    Great recap. It's interesting looking back at the series now through the what-Ryan-Murphy-has-proven-himself-to-be-as-a-writer lens.

    Haha Jerksica, does she demand her pop culture references be current even on shows that originally aired in the early '00s?

  2. Blogger chris | 1:49 PM |  

    Thanks, while this long-form recap business can be an intensive process, it really gives me a better understanding of how TV works than what I usually do after I watch an episode of a drama, which is basically either "that was boring" or "that was awesome!" or some combination of the two.

    Re: Jerksica. That's what I thought at first, but even in 2003, a Spice Girls reference is pretty lame.

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