Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 18, 2006


Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm


Dr. Sean McNamara and Dr. Christian Troy

With enough postmodernist tropes to keep a MLA convention going for an extra week, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” uses plastic surgery as a metaphor for various gender, racial and broader cultural issues. Although not as acclaimed as some of HBO’s marquee attractions such as “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck” is certainly as well written, acted and directed. Now in its fourth season on the FX cable network, which is not a premium outlet like HBO or Showtime, it is a true pop culture achievement. Past seasons can be viewed on DVD as well.

The two main characters are Christian Troy and Sean McNamara, partners in a Miami plastic surgery clinic, who are played by journeymen actors Julian McMahon, an Australian, and Dylan Walsh respectively. Now in early middle age, the two men have been friends since college days and both are going through a midlife crisis since the show began. Troy is the quintessential lothario who lures women into bed with promises of a free boob job. McNamara is desperately longing to have a stable married life but nothing goes right for him. His wife is sexually frustrated, his teenaged son hates him for all the usual reasons while his prepubescent daughter is still too young to suffer the miseries that attend the other members of the family on a nonstop basis.

The show is a combination of primetime soap opera and grand guignol experiment. In one of my favorite episodes, the two physicians face recertification which involves doing plastic surgery on a cadaver’s head under the watchful eye of an examiner. Christian Troy, who was far too busy partying as a college student to hone his skills to perfection, is so worried about the test that he decides to practice on his own cadaver beforehand. When it turns out that one can only be secured at the city morgue, Troy tries to bullshit his way past the security guard who will have none of it. After buying him off with some free “nip and tuck” work, we see a triumphant Troy making his way out the hospital with the cadaver’s head concealed in a bag.

Although McNamara is the far superior surgeon, he has lately been suffering attacks of the “yips”, an uncontrollable hand tic that afflicts golfers. So anxious is he about his prospects that he suffers hallucinations while working on the head of the cadaver assigned to him. The severed head of an elderly woman begins to chastise him for failings, both professional and personal. The scene achieves the kind of surreally comic intensity of a Dennis Potter teleplay.

The major female characters in “Nip/Tuck” are McNamara’s wife Julia, played by British actress Joely Richardson (the daughter of actor Tony Richardson), and McNamara’s long-time girl-friend Kimber Henry, who has turned from modeling to directing porn films. She is played by Kelly Carlson, a Sharon Stone type. Making occasional appearances on the show is Julia’s overbearing psychiatrist mother who is played to perfection by Vanessa Redgrave. The show often features celebrated actors in cameo roles, including Kathleen Turner who is somewhat typecast as a once-glamorous actress trying to recapture her youth though the surgeon’s blade (Turner has suffered a ‘coup d’age’ in real life.)

Each show begins in the same fashion with the two doctors asking a prospective patient what they don’t like about themselves. You get an endless litany of complaints about breasts being too large or too small, noses that are too Jewish, stomachs that need liposuction, etc. It is difficult to imagine how such matters can serve as an anchor for each week’s plot, but the writers have a gifted imagination as well as an obvious willingness to go beyond the bounds of medical realism. “Nip/Tuck” is most certainly not interested in verisimilitude. For that, you’re better off with documentaries like E Television’s Dr. 90210 or ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” whose blandishments I have found all too easy to resist.

Plastic surgery, like crime on “The Sopranos” or sex on “Sex and the City”, is merely a means for the writers to explore the psychology of the major characters and to meditate on American society’s foibles, most especially the commodification of beauty. Over and over again, characters discover that physical transformation does not bring them happiness. When one elderly female patient goes through extensive surgery in order to transform herself into the younger woman that her Alzheimer’s afflicted husband can only recognize in an old photo at that point, she discovers that he can still not recognizer her.

In an August 3, 2003 NY Times interview with head writer and creator Ryan Murphy conducted by Mim Udovitch, he explains how the show originated:

UDOVITCH — How did the concept develop?

MURPHY — When I was a journalist in the mid-90’s, calf implants for men had just come out, and I was going to do a very snarky, sarcastic article, going through the entire process and then stopping. So I went into my consultation with this plastic surgeon, and within five minutes, he told me five things I could do to improve my face and my body, and thus my life. And I walked out of that thinking, yeah, that makes total sense to me. I was so struck and appalled by that, I got scared off doing the article. Then when I started to have some luck in my career, I would always say, “I want to do a show about plastic surgery.” People would laugh and say: “I can totally see it. It’s hilarious.” And I would always say, “It’s not a sitcom, it’s a brutal hour look at the reasons people hate themselves.” Because I felt that when I walked out of that plastic surgeon’s office.

UDOVITCH — What do you think about the plastic surgery and makeover reality shows?

MURPHY — “Extreme Makeover” on ABC I find almost irresponsible and reprehensible. There’s a girl. She’s unhappy and she’s ugly and she’s been picked on, and they whisk her away to the surgery in a limo as if she were going to a premiere. There’s the 10-second soundbite after the surgery, when she’s drugged out of her mind, saying, “I don’t know if this was the right decision.” Then it’s “Brittany decided it was absolutely worth it.” And the last shot is always when the victim, the plastic surgery patient, walks down the stairway in her neighborhood Ground Round, and everybody applauds and cries. I want to see the show where the child looks at that person and weeps, and says, “You don’t look like my mother anymore.”

Apparently, plastic surgery has been around a long time as a wiki article reveals:

The history of cosmetic surgery reaches back to the ancient world. Physicians in ancient India including the great Indian surgeon Susrutha were utilizing skin grafts for reconstructive work as early as the 8th century BC. His work Sushruta Samhita describes rhinoplasty and otoplasty. This knowledge of plastic surgery existed in India up to the late 18th century as can be seen from the reports published in Gentleman’s Magazine (October 1794).

The Romans were able to perform simple techniques such as repairing damaged ears from around the 1st century BC. In mid-15th century Europe, Heinrich von Pfolspeundt described a process “to make a new nose for one who lacks it entirely, and the dogs have devoured it” by removing skin from the back of the arm and suturing it in place. However, because of the dangers associated with surgery in any form, especially that involving the head or face, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that such surgeries became commonplace.

Notwithstanding plastic surgery’s long history, it seems fairly obvious that it functions in American society as a typical “self-improvement” tool that goes along with diet, meditation techniques and other devices meant to help the individual human being stay afloat in a deeply competitive society. Since American society is based on a “dog eat dog” economic logic, it is no wonder that people are tempted to go under the knife to stay viable. This is obviously most true in professions like acting and television broadcasting where crow’s feet around the eyes or a double-chin can mean the loss of a livelihood.

In 1997, a book titled “Venus Envy: a history of cosmetic surgery” came out. It was written by Elizabeth Haiken, a history professor at the University of Tennessee. A January 23, 1998 Boston Globe review said:

In 1924, the New York Daily Mirror ran a Homely Girl Contest, awarding the unfortunate winner a surgical makeover. In 1929, after Rudolph Valentino’s death, his older brother, at the urging of movie executives, underwent seven nose jobs in a futile effort to achieve “a nose the camera will like.” Readers of the New York Daily News were treated to a sympathetic account of his ordeal.

As Haiken’s research reveals, it wasn’t just the great and near-great who availed themselves of cosmetic surgery. The movies exerted a powerful influence on ordinary Americans’ self-image. Women, especially, wanted to look like stars they saw onscreen, and some were willing to submit to surgery, often at the hands of disreputable “beauty doctors,” sometimes with unfortunate results.

In the 1920s and ’30s, trained plastic surgeons realized the importance of establishing the legitimacy of their specialty and brought it under the auspices of the American Medical Association. The American Board of Plastic Surgery was founded in 1941 to set standards for the profession. In the years between the wars, many plastic surgeons had concentrated on performing reconstructive surgery and were reluctant to operate on patients motivated by vanity. But by the ’40s most had realized that vanity was where the future lay, to say nothing of the money. The doctors were shortly persuaded that these patients weren’t motivated by (unhealthy) vanity but by a (healthy) desire for self-respect through self-improvement. If a new nose or chin would help them land a job or a husband, the cosmetic surgeon was ready to help. It was, and is, the American way.

If the fetishism of commodities is symptomatic of a society based on capitalist exploitation, no wonder that fetishism of the face and the body has become part of the “American way.” Just as we are told over and over that one can never be too rich or too thin, we are more and more buying into the idea that we can never be too beautiful. “Perfect Lie,” the haunting theme song of “Nip Tuck” performed by “Engine Room”, says it all:

Make me beautiful
Make me beautiful

Perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face
A perfect lie

Make me beautiful
Make me beautiful

Perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face
A perfect, perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face

A perfect lie
A perfect lie

A perfect lie
A perfect lie


  1. For Marxmail, if it hasn’t been seen already:

    (background to the Thai coup)

    Comment by Poulod — September 20, 2006 @ 4:38 pm

  2. I enjoyed The Stepfather- this was just as a great as the first. Dylan Walsh did a great job filling the shoes of Terry O’Quinn http://bit.ly/dicg8I

    Comment by jana — February 12, 2010 @ 12:26 am

  3. […] I made the case for “Nip/Tuck” in a 2006 article: […]

    Pingback by The Assassination of Gianni Versace | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 15, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

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