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`Nip/Tuck' is not afraid to look the ugly in the eye

"Nip/Tuck" is one big piece of ugly.

FX's plastic-surgery soap can even be nauseating, as it zooms in on anesthetized patients with hollowed-out eye sockets and bellies cut open like jelly doughnuts. And the "Nip/Tuck" take on human existence isn't very pretty, either. If you foster the illusion that happiness is possible and that age ushers in wisdom, peace, and joy, then the show's razor-sharp cynicism will quickly lance it. And that is the Rod Serling-like brilliance of "Nip/Tuck," which airs on Tuesday nights at 10. It's a terribly ugly TV show about America's worship of beauty, as seen through the lives of Miami plastic surgeons Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon). It's the kind of bold morality play that Serling loved to

deliver on "The Twilight Zone" -- think of the classic episode in which a picture-perfect woman is an outcast in a deformed society. While "Nip/Tuck" has enough lively relationship melodrama to rival Fox's "The O.C." in the suds department, it's also an ironic TV essay on the fleeting of youth. It's about nothing less than the dark soul of our media-bred culture and our doomed quest for immortality. Or, as Serling put it, it's set in a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind . . .

And if that all sounds pretentious, well, it is. As with "The Twilight Zone," or "Oz," "Nip/Tuck" doesn't bother with subtlety or modesty. It gleefully clobbers you over the head with its Big Themes on Life, giving them clever and dark new iterations each week. It is preachy, flamboyant, hysterical, insane, pornographic, addictive -- and never refined. The writers, including series creator Ryan Murphy, are drawn solely to plot twists that have heavy-duty psychospiritual resonance -- a street woman with stigmata who wants a wrist job, for example. They rub our noses in the ills of contemporary life.

And viewers, including this one, are going for the intensity big-time. This summer's "Nip/Tuck" season premiere drew 3.8 million viewers (and another 1.9 during a second airing later that night). Those are very hot numbers for cable, up there with the likes of HBO's "Six Feet Under." Apparently there is a popular taste for a show that's about as warm and fuzzy as a mannequin. And with the Emmy-winning "The Shield" and Denis Leary's strong FDNY drama "Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck" is also helping to turn FX into cable's new buzz network, one of the few outlets that, like HBO, may manage to distinguish itself in TV's 1,000-channel universe.

The two surgeons are the source from which the "Nip/Tuck" madness springs. Christian is the sex-crazed, Botoxed one with painstakingly manicured eyebrows. He's terrified of growing old, and he has a habit of sleeping with patients, most recently a mutilated Somalian woman for whom he has created a new clitoris. Sean is the family man married to Julia (Joely Richardson), but he's souring after learning that Christian is the father of his teen son. In a typically garish bit of metaphor, Sean and Christian considered breaking up their practice this season while performing separation surgery on conjoined twins. Ultimately, though, neither of them -- the twins, or Sean and Christian -- could survive apart from the other.

Faced with such conspicuous symbolism, it's almost impossible to watch "Nip/Tuck" and not think about what you're seeing. It isn't escapist TV; there's nothing breezy about it for the passive viewer. Even when it's funny, which it often is, the laughs are in-your-face and provocative, such as when the newly separated Sean seeks consolation from a life-sized doll, or when Sean and Christian go to a couples therapist. In this way, "Nip/Tuck" brings a unique spin to what the nighttime TV soap opera can be. It's not the entertaining fluff of "Queer as Folk" and "The O.C.," and it's not the literary storytelling of "Six Feet Under." It's a jolting allegory of American cultural decay, with a side of tangy dish.

It even has shadings of a dystopian science fiction fable, one that Serling might have had a hand in if he were alive today. The show's sci-fi affectations are most obvious in the surgery sequences, where the patients are laid out like the Frankenstein monster. (Naturally, the stigmata woman lay in the crucifixion pose.) The operating room is sterile, steely, and futuristic, on the order of "Brave New World," and the mad-scientist doctors often move in creepily symmetrical choreography. The most bizarre cases of disfigurement are often resolved miraculously -- almost supernaturally. And throughout, the ethereal theme music leaks its horror-like tones as youth and self-esteem vanish into the ether.

Now in the middle of its second season, "Nip/Tuck" probably wouldn't exist without the rash of makeover series in recent years. It takes its moral fuel from them, as it ridicules the naivete of looking without to change what's within. If you think "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Extreme Makeover" will teach you how to find contentment, "Nip/Tuck" is your electroshock therapy. The men and women who seek renewal from Sean and Christian generally remain miserable, like Jill Clayburgh's character, who turned psychotic when her liposuction failed. They're trying to escape human fate, and this is one show that doesn't cater to denial. It is more fixated on harsh reality -- especially with its gruesome surgical imagery -- than any so-called reality show.

And that shunning of denial may be one of FX's calling cards. "The Shield" "Nip/Tuck," and "Rescue Me" all refuse to employ euphemism or soft sell their difficult themes. They court the unromantic sides of life -- the brutality and moral ambiguity of rogue cops, the vanity of Americans, the private grief of firemen. They are hard-hitting, graphic, for-adults-only series that "go there," as they say. And when it comes to the remarkable "Nip/Tuck," where truth is beauty, that willingness to go there and be ugly comes in mighty handy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. 

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