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Classic Television Rundown: Nip/Tuck, Season One, Episode 10, "Adelle Coffin"

Nip/Tuck, Season One, Episode Ten: "Adelle Coffin"
Written by Ryan Murphy & Dell Chandler
Directed by Michael M. Robin
"You not only don't admit the error, you'd rather argue about it than correct it." -Sean, to Christian

As I've been re-watching the plastic surgery melodrama known as Nip/Tuck I've not only questioned my own enjoyment and gratification from it the first go around (admittedly, in a pre-Breaking Bad world) but I've also consistently wondered what made it such a breakout basic cable hit on FX. How "Adelle Coffin" starts out makes a pretty good case why, even if someone such as myself can see all of their downsides in a reflective nearly-ten-years-later landscape, Ryan Murphy's first foray into television was a successful microcosm of what was to come with a little shan't-be-mentioned teen musical dramedy on FOX a number of years later. From the outset, this episode manages to, like any proper and effective high school essay, grab your attention, offer a thesis, a preview of what's to come, and just enough balance of what the viewer/reader may already be familiar with and something new and exciting to delve into for 3-4 pages/40-44 minutes.

In this case, the "something new" is also the "something familiar", while the shocking attention-getter is a grisly medical procedure that has absolutely nothing to do with what your average plastic surgeon does. With a very quick "oh this patient is afraid of hospitals, so he came to our private practice" explanation, suddenly we're watching Christian Troy and Sean McNamara sew fingers back onto a plumber that put his hands down an active garbage disposal. It's a gruesome scene from the ER playbook in that they, per usual fashion, play cutesy rock music in the background so it's not overly serious like on network television, which is wacky! But wait: this isn't substance-less, they lead us to believe. For those that have been watching all season long, we get to see a new layer of Dr. Christian Troy's personality and background: the sad, untalented surgeon who cannot seem to do anything right, even something as simple as sewing the right fingertips back on the right digits. For those that are new to the wacky-doctor-soapy-funtime hour, well we are re-introduced to the dynamic between the two protagonists and their eternally playful-yet-dark BFF dynamic.

For what that's worth, Murphy's quite deft at combining the serial and procedural style, but employing an emotional and character-based method, rather than strictly the patient-of-the-week or problem-of-the-week formula. We don't need to know much about Christian, though it does enhance it, especially looking back on his arc with Kimber, to sympathize with his struggling to pass his re-certification medical exams in the wake of his revelations regarding his level of talent vs. hubris. Yes, it's a rather bland plot, even for a single episode, but as I've harped on ever since the pilot, Julian McMahon is brilliant even with the most hackneyed material, expressing more than adequately his complicated relationship with himself and those around him, ranging from supreme insecurity to overpowering cockiness. And with such a simple yet profoundly difficult (not just physically for him, as we learn that it's Sean who does all the complicated and delicate surgeries at their practice, but mentally too) task set in front of him, it's honestly quite mesmerizing to see him wade through it, despite Murphy's insistence at making it as quirky as possible, from him practicing on a Jane Doe in a morgue after bribing the guard to yet another encounter with the blackmailing Ms. Grubman.

Unfortunately, Christian Troy, like he does far too often in this show, got the B-plot in "Adelle Coffin." The titular patient is actually the cadaver of the head that Sean is given for his re-certification exam, and so we're forced to spend the majority of the episode with him and his problems. Not only are his problems very mixed up with his kind-of-mistress, the cancer-stricken Megan that's been around for far too long by now, which if you have not been able to tell is a storyline I have not been enamored with in the slightest, but it's also something that's so integral to us knowing/caring about what has been going on with Sean in recent episodes that I can't imagine it was very appealing to those dropping in off and on with the show. Luckily it steals from Six Feet Under and lets the disembodied Ms. Coffin speak as Sean's conscience and shame him for both his affair with Megan O'Hara as well as his implicit involvement with her suicide. Of course this happens because as he looks at his cadaver's chart (once again, conveniently made possible in a world where cadavers' histories are meant to be kept private because the test proctor preludes with "we've found it to be easier for doctors to know their patients before they perform surgery on them, even when they're dead," or something to that lame effect) and sees that Coffin's (speaking of heavy-handed convenience) cause of death was suicide.

The real reason to discuss this here, though, has naught to do with what they've been doing wrong with Sean's character since day one (that is, give the audience no reason to feel empathy for him and let Dylan Walsh overact his nervous/doe-eyed shtick) and everything to do with the fact that Megan has always felt like a transitory piece in Sean's character development. Walsh actually does a decent job in this episode, especially for having to talk with a ridiculously manic corpse about guilt blah blah, because he doesn't try anything too big or too self-serving. He suddenly leaves his exams and mutters "I don't care about anything" instead of screaming it, for instance. He lets anger and sadness well in his eyes as he admits his cheating to Julia after they come back from Megan's wake (which Julia wants to go to for some reason, of course, which could have been an interesting plot point if Murphy actually explored it rather than just give another convenient line that explains the weirdness away). No, what's most annoying this time around is that Megan, like Jude before her, only serves the purpose of driving Sean and Julia apart. It would have been monumentally more interesting to see Sean and Julia's failing marriage break apart for any other reason than infidelity, even if the first half was never consummated and the second half had a cancerous twist.

If I remember correctly, however, (per the last memorable quote mentioned below) this is finally what lets Sean and Julia's relationship (disintegrating or otherwise) start to become compelling. Because even though it took some boring and forced methods to get here, we realize that their family has been struggling to stay together for a long long time before we even met these characters. I did enjoy that, even though it was easy, it was effective to just end the episode with a slow zoom out as Sean cried at Julia's knees repeating "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over again as she sat there pushing her emotion away but still allowing him to grovel there before her. It's a staid and not necessarily soap-level illustration of their dependence, but it will allow us to get somewhere more natural and therefore more satisfying, even as other ephemera of the show get less and less realistic. And who knows, maybe that's part of its success as well: just as it knows how to gratify one half of its audience, it's quick to reboot itself in the next episode to gratify the other half. It's frustrating for both parties, but it still fosters a similar sick kind of dependency. So here I am, Murphy, groveling; won't you start reminding me why I loved your show for two-and-a-half seasons?

Grade: C

Nip/Tuck is available to watch on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Other Memorable Quotes: 
  • "I'll assist with 'Beef Curtains' and you can wheel in 'Colonel Sanders.'" -Christian Troy, nicknaming Ms. Grubman and her fiance
  • "Do you believe in it?" -Sean, asking Christian about suicide in the weirdest possible way
  • "But the irony of it - instead of helping to mask your pain, your affair with O'Hara only made it worse!" -Adelle Coffin's head, aka his conscience, to Sean
  • "Even your infidelity is passive aggressive!" -Julia, to Sean
  • "We lost each other a long time ago, Sean." -Julia (a lame line delivered by a terrific actress)

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