“Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” That’s the introductory line delivered to potential patients by the popular team of plastic surgeons, Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), in FX’s hit series, Nip/Tuck. With its explicit sexual content, including partial nudity and a penchant for threesomes, its depiction of the blood and guts of plastic surgery, and its violent confrontations between characters, Nip/Tuck approaches territory usually reserved for pay cable channels. Woven into its soap-opera plot lines is the suggestion of a hidden link between sexual license and the technological project of remaking the human body in light of individual wishes; indeed, the show depicts a deep connection between both of these and raw violence. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, calls it a “modern day horror story with the plastic surgeons as dueling Dr. Frankenstein’s.”
Now in its third season, Nip/Tuck is the most popular cable-based series among viewers aged 18-49; last season’s finale set an FX record with 5.2 million viewers. While the actors see the show as “way over the top” or as “shock TV,” Ryan Murphy offers a defense of the realism of the series. He observes, for example, that the medical cases, which range from the surgical removal of an obese woman from her bed to breast implants for a man who wants to sympathize with his wife’s breast cancer, are based on actual cases.
Two plot lines keep the show going: the partnership between Sean and Christian, and the mysterious character called the Carver, who butchers victims as a way of protesting society’s obsession with appearance and plastic surgery. Early on, the show set up a stark contrast between Christian as the serial seducer of women and Sean as the family man with wife Julia and son Matt. But, in fairly predictable ways, the two have come to resemble one another. Unless they were to become lovers themselves–something not beyond the realm of possibility on a show that knows no limits–it is difficult to imagine two men sharing more than they have. In one episode, they share a prostitute. Beyond that dalliance and their medical practice, they have shared Sean’s wife, Julia, and son, Matt. Christian, it turns out, is the biological father of the son Sean has raised.
Were these internal crises of fidelity not enough, the entire world of Miami plastic surgery operates in constant fear of the Carver. Reminiscent of the John Doe character from Seven, the Carver assaults and disfigures his victims, making them a sort of public commercial for the moral judgment of the ugliness of our obsession with physical appearance. After a number of attacks during last season, the Carver attacked Christian in the series finale.
Murphy goes so far as to equate the Carver’s butchering attacks with the violence of plastic surgery itself. Of course, on an obvious level, that’s a blatant falsehood; those who are attacked by the Carver seek out plastic surgeons to remove their scars and restore their appearance. But on another level, the show dramatically displays what happens one we lose all sense of natural limitations with respect to the body. The surgeons offer not just minor restoration, not just a nip here and a tuck there, but radical reconstructive surgery. The answers to the question, “what is it you don’t like about yourself?,” are potentially unlimited. Their practice embodies the limitless possibility and unrestrained ambition of modern medicine, by whose hands the body itself becomes raw material to be remade in light of whatever self-improvement fantasies the patient harbors. The same logic infiltrates sexual activity.
Sean becomes hostile and abusive toward Julia as their marriage deteriorates, while the libertine Christian finds animosity lurking in the midst of his dream threesome with Kimber and Kit. He soon tires of Kit and wants Kimber all to himself again. In a recent episode, Christian was arrested as the Carver on the basis of multiple types of evidence pointing in his direction. As fate or over-the-top writing would have it, the investigating detective is the recently scorned Kit. Even Sean and Julia begin to doubt his innocence, while Kit locates Christian’s birth mother and brings her to town for a “family reunion.” Assuming Christian’s guilt, the birth mother explains to him that he never really had a chance because his father was a violent rapist. In the midst of this, Kit and Christian have a nature/nurture debate. The suggestion here is that nature is deterministic and demonic, violently overwhelming our sense of self-determination and whatever socially constructed residue of conscience we might desire to cultivate.
On Nip/Tuck, advanced Western Civilization provides no defense against the ravages of nature, which is certainly a Hobbesian state of war. But the world of sadomasochistic sexuality and science without boundaries goes beyond anything in Hobbes. The best philosophical account of this world is to be found in the writings of Sade, who more than Hobbes or Nietzsche is the philosopher of our times. (On Sade, see the perceptive study by Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge.) Like Hobbes, Sade insists that we “come into the world as enemies” and live in a state of “perpetual and reciprocal warfare.” The bridge from Hobbes’s radical defense of a mundane conclusion on behalf of political order to sexual sadomasochism as a way of life is a romantic celebration of excess and transgression. Happiness, according to Sade, is “by way of pain.” Pleasure is fleeting and illusory; pain is real and reliable. The key faculty here is imagination, which plays a crucial role in the quality of desire and the degree of its satisfaction. The overstepping of boundaries “inflames” the imagination; hence, those who would make progress in enlightenment must strive to bend the imagination “toward the inconceivable.” Of course, the parasitic project of defying limits or laws is itself subject to the law of diminishing returns, as is equally evident in Sade’s tedious, turgid prose and in Nip/Tuck’s plot lines.
Often intertwined with sexual passion, violence is everywhere in this show. The most crude and explicit violence is evident in the show’s unflinching depiction of surgery, the CSI-style close-ups, and wallowing in bloody gore. But this is symptom rather than cause. Violence permeates human relationships, even non-sexual ones. As tensions escalate between Sean and his increasingly out-of-control teenage son, Sean punches his son in the face and bloodies his nose. Later, in an attempt, to make things right, he invites Matt to punch him and thus even the score.
Despite their occasional longing for fidelity and love, Sean’s pathetic attempt has an air of honesty about it. The best one can do in the world of Nip/Tuck is to turn violence against violence, in an endless battle of irreconcilable desire.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.