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'Nip/Tuck' gets a facelift

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

There should be something clever and ironic to say when a TV show about plastic surgery totally remakes itself to seem younger and livelier, but everything I think of just sounds lame.

So I'll just say this: FX's "Nip/Tuck," which returns for a new season Tuesday (at 10 EDT), has made itself fresh and alive and funny in a very, very smart way.

"Nip/Tuck" was the often-twisted, dark and challenging series about two Miami plastic surgeons and their variously complicated and flawed emotional lives. For four seasons, it had been an essay on the notions that things usually aren't what they appear to be and that people are, you know, nuts.

It was also a cinematic and surprising take on plastic surgeons Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) and the equally messed-up people around them, but it seemed to run out of steam last season. Then the guys moved to Los Angeles.

All of that quality remains, but this season, there's a different vibe. It starts two months after Sean and Christian have opened a clinic on Rodeo Drive, assuming they'd own L.A. the way they owned Miami. But so far, zero business, and they realize they're unknown fish in a much bigger pool, or as Liz (Roma Maffia), their anesthesiologist tells them, "You're chum being devoured by all the Rodeo Drive great whites."

So, they do what anyone chasing the Hollywood dream would do, they get a publicist - Fiona (Lauren Hutton) - and she gets them on a cheesy TV show about plastic surgery called "Hearts `N Scalpels."

Christian, usually the opportunist of the crew, has doubts. "Are you saying," he asks Fiona, "being on a TV show would give us credibility?"

The whole tone goes like that. Not that there aren't some serious dark streaks still running through "Nip/Tuck," but suddenly, it's slightly mocking of, actually, itself, and all of Hollywood.

There's Fiona's client, Carly (Daphne Zuniga), a 40-year-old actress who's up for the role of a lifetime: single mother, coal miner, with an autistic child. There's the over-his-head show producer (Oliver Platt); the airhead star (Bradley Cooper); the serious actress (Paula Marshall), and the studio exec with a dangerous fetish (Craig Bierko). There is also Mistress Dark Pain (Tia Carrere), and do I need to explain she's a dominatrix?

That's just the first episode, and it only gets better and richer. "Nip/Tick," as ever, has a parade of great guest stars to go with its talented cast, and it still rips at convention and pokes at ideas about ego, success, marriage, appearance, and, of course, sex. But now, it's sunnier, more lively and, since this is about plastic surgery, almost perky.

There's a point where Fiona tells Christian, "Refresh Carly's face so we can refresh her career." That could have been FX execs talking to executive producer Ryan Murphy, because he's given "Nip/Tuck" a whole new look and life.

___

If you've spent much time around this column, you know I'm a huge fan of PBS' "Nova." But not this week. On Tuesday (check local PBS listings), "Nova" lets us down with a simplistic and, frankly, dangerous take on running in an episode called "Marathon."

First, a disclosure: I've been running for fun and competition most of my life, and I've done some coaching, as well. In my happy world, everyone would run, at least a little, because it's healthy and it's a good time.

On "Marathon," a team of scientists and trainers finds a dozen inactive, out-of-shape people and tries to prepare them for the Boston Marathon - in nine months. "Nova's" narrator says they want to know if sedentary people can be trained to run a marathon.

It's a good idea to examine, except that the obvious answer - and it's available from any legitimate running coach in the country - is that nine months is not enough time for someone who's overweight and inactive to train for a marathon safely. That doesn't mean people can't do it - plenty of groups aim for that sort of thing, though always with runners who've been at least a little active - but the risks, and often the resulting injuries, are huge.

"Nova" says as much. The research team expects half to drop out because of injury. It would be as if "Nova" took un-acclimated climbers and had them march straight up Mt. Everest. Of course, they'd be done in by the altitude.

And many of the "Nova" runners do get hurt. One woman is advised by doctors to lose 70 pounds before going all the way to marathon-level training, but she does it anyway.

The Nova researchers say they're trying to help kick-start people to change their lifestyles. Fair enough. But the options aren't limited to either being inactive or running the Boston Marathon. There's all kinds of running goals, and just exercise goals, that they could have found in the vast middle ground. And pushing people too fast just gets them hurt, and keeps them from being active.

What's worse for "Nova" is that the actual science in the episode - which could have justified the experiment - is almost non-existent. If the show supplied detailed looks at how bodies change and adapt, and why, that would have had some value.

Instead, the explanations are simplistic and without reference points, and they're nothing that hasn't been known for years. The sum total of the science is that "Nova" says human bodies evolved with the ability to run, and humans adapt to aerobic and endurance stress.

Here's the one true valuable sentence in the show: "The first day you go out and exercise," one researcher says, "you're healthier than the day before."

That could have been a theme. That's something that could help kick-start lifestyle changes. "Nova" could have pushed that point, and it could have told people how to really train - how to plan enough time, allow for rest periods, recognize signs of injury, change their diets, and much more.

Instead, by the end, it devolves into cliche, overly-emotional scenes, including the ones with sappy music playing as runners head toward the finish line.

"Nova" producers have created one of the great science series in TV history, and they surely will do more engaging, valuable work. But "Marathon" on Tuesday is beneath them.

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