The theme of midlife crisis dominates the second season of "Nip/Tuck," which exhibits no signs of a sophomore jinx. Somehow able to have it both ways -- indicting society's obsession with beauty and appearance while exploiting it -- creator Ryan Murphy has made like Fred Astaire, dancing up to the edge of "too far" without toppling over.

The theme of midlife crisis dominates the second season of “Nip/Tuck,” which exhibits no signs of a sophomore jinx. Somehow able to have it both ways — indicting society’s obsession with beauty and appearance while simultaneously exploiting it — program creator Ryan Murphy has consistently made like Fred Astaire, dancing up to the edge of “too far” without toppling over. Based on three new episodes, those caught in this provocative FX series’ spell last year have ample reason to succumb again, providing a small antidote to TV’s disturbing “makeover” outbreak.

Of all the programs spawned by that strange TV malady known as “HBO-envy,” “Nip/Tuck” comes closest to fulfilling its promise — and not merely because of the ghastly surgical close-ups or explicit sexual encounters, though they clearly don’t hurt.

Beyond the best trappings of an old-fashioned soap, Murphy (who wrote and directed the premiere) has created a fascinating collection of conflicted characters, exploring issues of longing, loss and morality through these imperfect souls, however they might look — before and after — on the exterior.

Re-introducing the two Miami plastic surgeons at the show’s center, Sean (Dylan Walsh), after an extra-marital dalliance, is again happily with wife Julia (Joely Richardson) as he braces for his 40th birthday, while partner Christian (Julian McMahon) presses him to Botox away that furrowed brow. “Have you ever seen a fat personal trainer?” Christian asks, underscoring their need to sustain a certain image.

That’s one of several memorable lines in this flight of episodes, which sees Julia’s icy mother Erica (Vanessa Redgrave, Richardson’s real-life mom) enter the picture, as well as the arrival of a “life coach” — has the “Nip/Tuck” gang been watching Fox’s “The Swan”? — played by Famke Janssen. Not surprisingly, Erica has some history with the womanizing Christian that brings to mind Barbara Stanwyck attempting to seduce a much-younger Richard Chamberlain in “The Thorn Birds.”

Sean’s good fortune can’t last for long, with a strange condition threatening his surgical career. Meanwhile, Christian continues his rat-like ways with women, but develops a real affection for the baby he’s raising with the emotionally troubled Gina (Jessalyn Gilsig).

As for the patients, the opening installment (which will run commercial-free) is probably the least intriguing, whereas a subsequent hour about a Somalian woman subjected to ritual genital mutilation proves extremely moving.

Walsh, McMahon and Richardson are quite strong as the show’s twisted triangle. What sets “Nip/Tuck” apart, though, is its overall tone and sense of unpredictability, with Murphy forging characters that can be sympathetic and despicable all at once.

Moreover, the grisly operating scenes (which I confess to squeamishly TiVo-ing through at times last season) stand almost alone — except on Discovery Health or something — in reminding TV viewers that plastic surgery is no picnic. Compare that to the golly-gee attitude toward makeovers in reality TV, where fleeting discomfort is invariably overwhelmed by post-reveal exultation.

Although “The Shield” has rightfully earned accolades, “Nip/Tuck” now represents FX’s signature offering and one of TV’s premiere dramas — a rarity whose darkest moments have a way of lingering in the mind. Such depth and humanity might be unexpected from a show that clearly revels in every four-letter word and exposed cheek, yet as the series so often demonstrates, appearances can be deceiving.


FX, Tues. June 22, 10 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in L.A. and Miami by Ryan Murphy Prods. and the Shephard/Robin Co. in association with Warner Bros. Television. Executive producers, Ryan Murphy, Greer Shephard, Michael M. Robin; co-executive producers, Lyn Greene, Richard Levine; supervising producer, Sean Jablonski; producer, Patrick McKee; co-producers, Brad Falchuk, Jennifer Salt, Michael Weiss; writer-director, Murphy.
  • Crew: Camera, Christopher Baffa; editor, Byron Smith; music, James S. Levine; production designer, Ed McAvoy; special effects makeup, Thomas R. Burman, Bari Dreiband-Burman; casting, Robert J. Ulrich, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer. 60 MIN.
  • Cast: Dr. Sean McNamara - Dylan Walsh Dr. Christian Troy - Julian McMahon Julia McNamara - Joely Richardson Matt McNamara - John Hensley Dr. Liz Cruz - Roma Maffia Gina Russo - Jessalyn Gilsig Ava Moore - Famke Janssen Erica Noughton - Vanessa Redgrave
  • Music By: