Last year's "Carver" plotline yielded a ratings turbo-boost, but it also left a sour aftertaste for many fans. So it's reassuring to see the program refocused and mostly back on track as it opens its fourth season, which finds new torments with which to plague its central trio, as well as a plethora of showy guest stars.

Last year’s sensational “the Carver” plotline yielded a ratings turbo-boost, but it also left a sour aftertaste for many fans of this previously topnotch series, which seemed to careen off the rails. So it’s reassuring to see the program refocused and mostly back on track as it opens its fourth season, which finds new torments with which to plague its central trio, as well as a plethora of showy guest stars in deliciously perverse roles.

It’s perhaps appropriate that “Dallas” veteran Larry Hagman appears in the premiere, since some would doubtless like to write off last season’s finale as a bad dream. With no more serial maimers in sight, the plastic surgery partnership of McNamara/Troy is back in business, and Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Julia (Joely Richardson) have not only reconciled their marriage but are awaiting the birth of a third child.

But in series creator Ryan Murphy’s noirish, thought-provoking look at the price of beauty and its often-painful pursuit, nothing is quite as it seems, and no one stays happy for long. Julia discovers there’s a complication with her pregnancy, potentially putting a strain on her newly healed relationship with Sean. And Christian (Julian McMahon), Sean’s ladies’ man professional partner, is challenged by a therapist (Brooke Shields) to confront his inability to get close to women emotionally — and whether his one successful relationship, with Sean, may be to blame.

Meanwhile, Hagman enters the picture as a wealthy patient with designs on purchasing the firm, married to a much-younger wife, Michelle (Sanaa Lathan), who not surprisingly catches Christian’s eye. Finally, son Matt (John Hensley) finds solace for his troubled soul — via, rather boldly, Scientology.

Other guests in the first three episodes include a perfectly cast Kathleen Turner as a woman who wants vocal-cord surgery, Richard Chamberlain as a rich collector of young men, Jacqueline Bisset as a shadowy figure from Michelle’s past and Peter Dinklage as a potential nanny.

As always, the series manages to glorify surface beauty while subjecting society’s obsession with it to a harsh glare, holding up the strange cases that waltz in as a mirror to the Sean-Julia-Christian triangle. The dialogue remains biting as well, such as Christian’s line to a surgery-seeking fling, “No pro bono for boning a pro.”

Yet the show also takes chances, and not always successfully. In the premiere, that includes injecting more overt questions of homoeroticism into Sean and Christian’s relationship — raising the somewhat tired canard, recently leveled by none other than Ann Coulter against Bill Clinton, that womanizing may signal repressed homosexual feelings. Honestly, can’t piggish men still claim something as their own?

Nevertheless, the cast remains one of TV’s best, and the premiere appears a tacit acknowledgement of the need for a makeover to restore this FX drama to the lofty level it previously occupied. Then again, qualitative assessments, like beauty, remain in the eye of the beholder.

Nip/Tuck

Tue. Sept. 5, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Ryan Murphy Prods. and the Shephard/Robin Co. in association with Warner Bros. Television. Executive producers, Murphy, Michael M. Robin; co-executive producers, Lyn Greene, Richard Levine, Sean Jablonski; producers, Jennifer Salt, Brad Falchuk; writer-director, Murphy.

Crew

Camera, Christopher Baffa; editor, Bradley Buecker; music, James S. Levine; production designer, Liz Kay; casting, Robert J. Ulrich, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer, Liz Dean. Running time: 60 MIN.

With

Dr. Sean McNamara - Dylan Walsh Dr. Christian Troy - Julian McMahon Julia McNamara - Joely Richardson Matt McNamara - John Hensley Dr. Liz Cruz - Roma Maffia Kimber Henry - Kelly Carlson Michelle Landau - Sanaa Lathan
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