TV Rewind: Nip/Tuck Season 5 Is Ryan Murphy’s Most Entertaining Train WreckPhoto Courtesy of FX TV Features Nip/Tuck
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If you’re a fan of Ryan Murphy, chances are your fandom began with his first breakout television show, Nip/Tuck. In the early aughts, the series about two plastic surgeons in Miami offered something fresh and spicy that has never been seen on the small screen before. With its explicit depiction of surgeries, kinky sexual shticks, and open discussions of body image issues and gender politics, Nip/Tuck was well ahead of its time.
After the impressive debut season, Murphy and his writers managed to maintain the show’s commitment to realistic drama through Seasons 2 and 3, mainly through intriguing weekly cases and some well-written personal traumas. With Season 4, however, the credibility palpably began to falter, and the series lost some of the exciting flair that made it so captivating. For Season 5, Murphy decided to relocate the setting to Los Angeles in order to freshen things up (a much-needed change), and that’s when everything spiralled out of control in the worst and best possible way.
Kicking things off with a new status quo, Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon) face a set of existential and financial problems right after their move to LA. They might have been well-established surgeons in Miami, but they’re nobodies with no connections in California. They struggle to build a successful practice, and their old-fashioned way of trying to get potential clients fails miserably. Age is a currency in the Golden State, and stepping into their 40s with no game plan whatsoever doesn’t do them any favors—not to mention their individual vanity crises, desperately trying to impress anyone with influence. That’s when an agent comes along and offers them a chance to gain access to the Californian elite of medical professionals. Thanks to her, they get a golden opportunity to become consultants on a hit medical drama (Hearts ‘N Scalpels), make some money, and gain crucial exposure for their business.
Wait, what? Yes, Murphy shamelessly employs a quasi-meta approach to make fun of plastic surgeons and his own creation at the same time. That might sound like a recipe for disaster, but the amount of hilarious moments he’s able to squeeze out of this idea is remarkable. While Sean and Christian are busy with their own pissing contest of who can become more famous, we get the funniest guest star introduced in the show’s history: Bradley Cooper. He portrays the repulsively egotistic and amusingly dumb superstar Aidan Stone, who plays the lead in Hearts ‘N Scalpels. No matter how many great comedy performances you’ve seen from him, I guarantee none are as hysterical as his always smiling, swaging, and flexing narcissist here.
With that setup, Murphy opens up the series for some self-indulgent satire, bringing on a group of batshit crazy characters who wallow in their fame and personal dramas constantly. We meet Hearts ‘N Scalpels’ director Freddy Prune (Oliver Platt at his most endearing), a quirkily eccentric man who’s gay but doesn’t know it; Colleen (Sharon Gless), a delusional and obsessive fake agent who eventually turns into a weirdo serial killer; and Kate (Paula Marshall), a co-star on the show, who becomes Sean’s new girlfriend with a plethora of complexes. These three only scratch the surface of the vast variety of unbelievably deranged personalities Season 5 features throughout its 22 episodes (the longest season out of the six).
In any other series, that meta approach would probably fill an entire season, but in Nip/Tuck, it’s only a short juncture in the abundance of plotlines and subplots that transpire throughout the episodes. Pushing the limits of the genre to the extreme, Murphy turns the soapy elements up to eleven: affairs bordering on pedophilia, abortion, prostitution, drug addiction, mercury poisoning, metastatic cancer, suicide attempt, and serial murder are a normal Tuesday in the world of Nip/Tuck. The power dynamics between the regular characters constantly change on whims and moods (sometimes along with their sexual orientations), while their actions (no matter how hideous or severe) hardly bear any consequence. At this point, the shock value is so low that even the darkest twists turn comical in an instant. Every episode is an organized chaos that somehow finds a way to revel in its own nonsense and vulgarity.
Essentially, Murphy turns his once profound show into a combination of parody and satire, and his brilliance is that he manages to make us feel like we’re in on the joke. He shows that the excessive banalities aren’t lost on him, and he purposely pushes the envelope with every character. The perfect example to convey this is Matt (John Hensley), the prodigal son of Sean and Christian, who never fails to disappoint. He enters the season as a meth addict married to a porn star (who once was Christian’s former fiancée), broke and desperate, ready to dive into gay porn (despite being straight) to acquire money for his drug habit. When that doesn’t happen, he accidentally lights himself on fire by trying to cook meth in his hotel room. Later, when he’s forced to kick the habit, he screws his half-sister and then continues to have an incestuous romantic relationship with her. Undoubtedly, he’s Murphy’s number one punching bag, an impressively stupid and morally bankrupt character he uses to inflict his most sadistic ideas on. It’s baffling yet also fascinating how he always finds new lows right when you think his situation couldn’t get any worse.
It speaks to Murphy’s talent as a writer and showrunner that, despite the numerous shortcomings, he can turn these bonkers characters, insane plotlines, and inconsistent twists into a wild trip that just never seems to slow down. He even manages to tie up loose ends by bringing back characters from earlier seasons and giving them (and the audience) some sense of closure. Watching Season 5 is like watching someone doing a lot of cocaine and then trying to get sober by taking speed and chugging down Red Bulls—it’s ugly, hilarious, and desperate, but also irresistibly entertaining. Hands down, it’s the most unhinged ride the show has ever been on. And by delivering a culmination of soapy plotlines, eerie suspense, and non-PC humor at its most extreme, Murphy gives us a masterclass on how to put a train wreck on display and make it an amusing spectacle.
Akos Peterbencze is an entertainment writer based in London. He covers film and TV regularly on Looper, and his work has also been published in Humungus, Frame Rated, and Fanfare. Akos is a Rustin Cohle aficionado and believes that the first season of True Detective is a masterpiece. You can find him talk about all-things pop culture on Twitter (@akospeterbencze) and Medium (@akospeterbencze).
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