After being nearly blown up by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, Rachel Ben Natan (Maggie Siff) made her way the U.S. to work as a burn trauma counselor and physical therapist. Here she met Matt (John Hensley), who had also been nearly blown up — cooking kitchen meth after his wife dumped him and returned to her career in porn.

It’s typical Nip/Tuck melodrama, and indeed, the histrionics are part of the show’s ongoing appeal. What was less typical in Season Five’s 15 January return after the winter hiatus was the treatment of the Rachel Ben Natan storyline. Previously, she was all steely reserve and willing subjection to God’s will (much like her Palestinian attacker, though Nip/Tuck couldn’t quite make that acknowledgement). After consulting with Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) about some chronic pain in her traumatized face, Rachel learned that what she had been told were pieces of metal and concrete shrapnel are actually bits of the teeth, bones, and flesh of her attacker, which now riddle her body.

Rachel, not surprisingly, freaked out, experiencing these bits of the bomber as a further violation of her body, and demanded that Sean remove them all. Her crisis of consciousness and identity (did the bits inside of her make her complicit with the drives and violence of her assailant?) was taken up by Sean as well, who was struggling with his own questions of fidelity and betrayal, as Christian (Julian McMahon) and Julia (Joely Richardson) were finally shacked up together. And as Rachel felt her questions physically (pain, sleeplessness), Sean was haunted by his imagining of the suicide bomber (Dylan Ramsey), who taunted Sean with jeremiads about faith, divine reward, and the pleasures of martyrdom.

A bit over the top to be sure, but what keeps the story from slipping into the realm of jingoism and schlock is Rachel’s realization that “The trick is to forgive the unforgivable.” Only by rejecting demands for justice and retribution will she find peace. This is classic Nip/Tuck, a moment of complication, perhaps even “truth,” amongst the regular soap operatics. As usual, this time it’s one of the rewards for sitting through much of the rest of the show.

The other reason to return to Nip/Tuck, and Season Five is no exception, are the cameos and stunt casting. This season has seen the introduction of Bradley Cooper as Aiden Stone, a self-obsessed Hollywood hedonist, and Oliver Platt as screaming closet-queen TV producer Freddy Prune. The two have given the show some much needed levity so far this season. So have Rosie O’Donnell and John Schneider. O’Donnell returns as Dawn Budge, white-trash lotto bijillionaire and paramour to Freddy Prune. In last week’s episode, Dawn was afraid that her boyfriend was going to come out of the closet after he and Aiden were invited to ride in the West Hollywood gay pride parade. She followed Freddy to the parade, experienced a moment of panic, and tried to run down the street after him, only to be run over by a dyke-on-a-bike. The image of Rosie O’Donnell playing a frustrated and possibly homophobic girlfriend mowed down by a butchie on a motorcycle was absolute gold.

Schneider, coming off his successful turn at uber-good guy Jonathan Kent on Smallville, has joined Nip/Tuck as Ram Peters, Kimber’s once and again porn producer and husband. Ram is all slick smarm and sexual opportunism, and Schneider steals every scene he’s in. Who would have thought Bo Duke would make such a comeback?

The central characters and storylines on Nip/Tuck haven’t been so compelling. Season Five’s relocation of McNamara/Troy to L.A. had the potential to skewer U.S. celebrity obsessions and hyper-body-fascism even more elaborately than the show has previously. The season’s second episode, “Joyce and Sharon Monroe,” detailed the lengths two Marilyn impersonators go to in order to reshape their bodies and cash in on an American icon. In “Chaz Darling,” Chaz (Jai Rogriquez) told the anorexic Eden (AnnaLynne McCord), Julia’s lesbian lover and Olivia’s (Portia de Rossi) daughter, that “Minus-2 is the new size zero.”

Interrupting such moments of pointed commentary are the troubled lives and lovers of Sean, Christian, Julia, and Matt — plots that are increasingly tedious. It’s hard to care that Sean feels betrayed that Julia and Christian are finally together, when he’s been whining about this possibility for several seasons already, or that Matt continues to be a total doormat, letting any woman who shows the slightest interest in his puppy dog eyes dominate him. Sean in particular has recently appeared even more mopey and self-pitying than he has always been. Then again, it supports the show’s proposal that L.A. is symbolic of U.S. consumer culture: it makes self-obsessed neurotics of us all.

RATING 6 / 10