“Tell me what you don’t like about yourself?”
Perhaps no eight words better encapsulate our collective cultural obsession with corporeal perfection. So it’s befitting that on the FX drama “Nip/Tuck” — approaching its 100th episode in its sixth and final season — Drs. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) and Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) pose this eviscerating question to patients at their Miami-based practice at the start of each medical consultation.
Tapping into a cultural phenomenon whereby Natural Born Beauty is a thing of the past, the doctors’ patients on “Nip/Tuck” aren’t superficial stick figures angling for bigger breasts — though they are that, too — but complicated and nuanced individuals on a desperate quest for a different life. And while the show exposed the dirty, dark underbelly of the beauty business, it also enlightened the mainstream public. Where once tummy tucks and nose jobs were reserved for movie stars and rich socialites, “Nip/Tuck” came along and quite literally changed the face of how we perceive the plastic surgery industry.
“When the show started airing, people gave us a lot of flak about how violent the surgeries were,” recalls McMahon. “But we were trying to depict the reality of what actually happens when you go under the knife. You may whimsically say you want to change your nose, but changing your nose is a pretty horrible thing. Ultimately, is a new nose going to make you happy? No, it’s not.”
Walsh, who points out that 99% of the cases portrayed on “Nip/Tuck” were plucked from real-life surgeries, reflects thoughtfully on the show’s conceit that a person willing to go under the knife in order to awake with a changed body often has deep, underlying psychological issues.
“On the surface, the question ‘What don’t you like about yourself?’ was asked so the plastic surgeon could know what the patient wanted to change on his body,” McMahon says. “But often, much more came from the person’s answer, and much of what was revealed suggested a lot of inner craziness.”
And while the show featured scandal-filled storylines in which over-the-top sex, drugs and adultery figured prominently — Troy, for example, was a notorious womanizer whose doctor-patient boundaries were repeatedly blurred — the ultimate message of the show was pointedly serious.
“It could have easily been a flippant show,” posits Walsh of the series. “We could have just used the public industry in plastic surgery and shown it in all of its ridiculousness, but we showed the surgeries for a reason. At the time the show premiered, a wave in plastic surgery started across the country. People were getting procedures done and treating it like it was dentistry. We wanted to show that beauty is subjective. Here is a doctor making marks on your face and scribbling notes on a chart, but is that going to make you beautiful? Nobody was asking that when that whole wave started. In terms of cultural perception (of plastic surgery), we’ve definitely turned a corner.”
FX prez John Landgraf, who arrived at the network during the skein’s second season, says, “The show was very much of its time, and caught the zeitgeist.”
McMahon credits the show’s success to “genius” creator Ryan Murphy. Murphy, he says, was constantly taking risks in his unflinching commitment to creating characters who challenged the status quo of those on other dramas.
“We had an interesting entertainment show that set bold, new boundaries for the way characters were behaving,” McMahon says. “It was a groundbreaking moment in cable TV and particularly basic cable TV.”
The show also deftly portrayed the traumatizing post-op experiences of those around the patient. “We have a strong biological connection to our face,” says Wash, citing the episode in which the doctors performed a face transplant. “The image of that face in one’s memory bank becomes scrambled. The patient tends to have the least balanced view of the result of the surgery. It’s the people around them that tend to be the most upset.”
Of course, one of the series’ most compelling draws is that it never shied away from depicting the flaws, amorality and shortcomings of Troy and McNamara. This unapologetic account of human psychology resonated with viewers. At its best, “Nip/Tuck” hit on the universal theme of striving for self-improvement, conceding that whether we get plastic surgery or not, we all suffer from some sense of imperfection.
“He was just not happy,” says McMahon of his philandering character in the midst of a midlife crisis. “He wasn’t running off to have plastic surgery, but he was always trying to find happiness in misguided and crazy ways. We all want to transform something, we’re all reaching for change.”