In typical nip/tuck shock/schlock fashion, Season Four began with a bang. Having just completed their 5,000th cosmetic surgery, Christian (Julian McMahon) and Sean (Dylan Walsh) had reason to celebrate. Dedicated family man Sean asked Christian back to his house for dinner with wifey Julia (Joely Richardson) and kids Matt (John Hensley) and Annie (Kelsey Batelaan). Christian demurred, saying the only way he wanted to celebrate was “with a big slice of hair pie.”

It’s ooogie, yes. But nip/tuck‘s resident Lothario has never been short on the smarm. We saw Christian shortly after, back at his condo, having picked up a mother-daughter pair (Tracy Scoggins as mom Jill and Brianne Davis as daughter Riley) in a bar, sport fucking the both of them while they take turns watching. Gratuitous shots of Julian McMahon’s admittedly shapely ass abounded.

The show has for, for three seasons, notoriously and successfully banked on such sexual audaciousness. But there was something a little bit too-too about this mother-daughter thing. Dr. Troy has previously engaged in a nearly exhaustive catalog of sexual acts, but this one felt like this was a desperate attempt to keep his escapades “fresh,” or at least different from last year’s.

Then again, the mother-daughter dynamic seemed to set the stage for the coming season’s thematic focus. And a sharp tone seemed set as well, when Christian’s incapacity for verbal intimacy surfaced, as it always does: “What?” asked Jill, “Our tongues are good enough for your asshole, but not your mouth?” If nip/tuck‘s last season concerned the failures of fatherhood (both Christian’s own dysfunctional family history, and his and Sean’s failures with Matt), this season looks to be all about mothers, both ferocious and duplicitous.

The premiere episode introduced Christian’s unnamed analyst (Brooke Shields), who challenged his masculine sense of self and suggested his problems with intimacy might be repressed homo desires. Mommy Jill and the doctor formed the ferocious mother-type, in essence an authoritative, mouthy, castrating machine. When they drove Christian into a tizzy, he decided that his condo’s perfectly appointed decor was too femme, and hired a designer to “butch it up.” The result, hardly surprising, was a stylized masculinity that makes the interior read way gayer than before. It’s a little troubling that the implication here is that overbearing mother figures determine (or perhaps confirm) their surrogate son’s gayness.

The other type of mother, duplicitous, was introduced via Julia. Last year she became pregnant with another of Sean’s progeny. The unborn baby boy has tested positively for electrodactyly, or “lobster claw syndrome.” When informed of the possibility, she chose to keep the baby. Worse, Julia lied to Sean through omission in order to protect her selfish desires for another baby (he has since admitted he would have wanted to abort). Bad mommy!

The goings-on on nip/tuck are often melodramatic, but the episodic storylines that detail the clientele of MacNamara/Troy keep it from slipping into low-rent nighttime soap opera territory. The folks who walk through the doors of the cosmetic surgery clinic represent a wide spectrum of anxieties about the body, beauty, desirability, and social acceptance. The doctors’ first query of each patient — “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself” — lays out the ground not only for that character’s mini-trajectory, but also frames the conditioned fear and frustration that fuel a global beauty industry.

Through these various clients’ histories and desires, the series also inquires into current arrangements of social power. In the Season Four premiere Christian and Sean met with a new client, Burt Landau (Larry Hagman). A prostate cancer survivor, Landau was unhappy with the size of his prosthetic testicles, and asked the doctors to replace them with “Kiwi-sized” models. Previously proud of the size of his balls, he had, up to this point in his life, equated his success as a businessman and lover with his testicular largeness. Landau embodies, quite literally, masculinist presumptions of social power and privilege. As Landau noted, “It takes balls” to make the quick decisions necessary in his line of work (venture capital investment, or whatever it’s called).

Christian and Sean were a little hesitant at first, but only at first and only a little. They also believe that masculine identity is intimately related to those two dangling glands and so, went ahead with the surgery. This resolution is indicative of the routine tension in nip/tuck; it’s never clear whether the show is critique or confirmation of the narcissism it diagnoses. The Season Four premiere critiqued Landau’s connection of social power with big balls, and yet it also suggested that such critique is immaterial. If Landau believes it, and having bigger prostheses makes him “better” in a variety of social settings, that’s all that matters.

Once again, it seemed that individual desire trumped social critique on nip/tuck. Then again, the show is never so black and white, always ambiguous concerning its “message.” Never preaching or talking down to its audience, it lets us come to our own conclusions about beauty and myths.

RATING 7 / 10
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