Their Bodies, Ourselves

Before and after photos from Extreme Makeover.Photo: Ed Herrera/ABC and Craig Sjodin/ABC

Talk about meta: In the often disturbing and gruesome FX hit Nip/Tuck, an over-the-top drama about a booming Miami plastic-surgery practice, actors who may or may not have gotten work done in real life play characters who may or may not be getting work done. The dialogue about the characters’ bodies—which are, of course, also the actors’ real bodies—is merciless: A model who wants to be a “10” is told she’s merely an “8.” A housewife contemplates her sagging breasts, which her surgeon husband flatly states are gravitationally appropriate “for your age.” A rich, arrogant prick is told by his date (the “8”) that even if he got his self-described “goofy” hairdo fixed, he’d still only be a “4” (though watching it, I’m thinking, Hey, that actor’s a “2,” at best).

There’s something so perversely post- reality-TV about a drama in which the cast members constantly speak lines that deconstruct the failings of their own bodies. Nip/Tuck breaks down the fourth wall without even touching it. For the actors, it’s the reverse of an out-of-body experience: an all-too-in-body experience. For viewers, it’s like voyeurism on speed (and it’s addictive like speed).

It’s fiction that’s way too factual. (Watch for an enterprising Swarthmore professor to start teaching a “Dialectics of Nip/Tuck” seminar any minute now.)

Facing Reality: A Nip/Tuck surgeon fine-tunes his handiwork.Photo: Robert Zuckerman

It is, in a word, brutal. Especially since Nip/Tuck incorporates surgical footage in which real-life stand-ins (for the show’s “patients”) go under the knife. Hammers and chisels chip away at cartilage. Blood spurts. Saws grind, excruciatingly, through bone. This Old House and Trading Spaces have nothing on a nose job.

And then, by marrying this bloody spectacle to often cheesy morality tales (the show can be as righteous and didactic as The West Wing), Nip/Tuck offers a frisson of depth. Depth about shallowness (ta da!).

Meanwhile, ABC’s Extreme Makeover offers breadth about shallowness. Each week, a few poor saps’ total transformations are chronicled—and the results are invariably astonishing. But the real frisson of E.M. comes more from the prosaic spectacle of dumb people trying to sound all deep about their superficiality.

On this season’s premiere, for instance, a clueless husband explained how he reassured his pre-makeover wife: “I would always tell her, ‘You know what? That body brought in [to the world] a beautiful child that is ours. I accept it for what it is.’ ”

Thanks, bud! Way to make your spouse feel like a progeny-producing meat sack.

The great thing is that we don’t have to accept him, with his ample gut and frightening head of patchy hair. And it’s profoundly pleasurable to watch him burst into tears upon seeing his wife post-surgery and later confess that he fears he may no longer be good enough for her. (Damn straight, fatso!)

Cruelty has always made for good television. We can always use a little more cruelty to drown out our self-loathing as we plant our collectively ample asses on the couch and eat Ben & Jerry’s straight out of the carton. Considering how much America has let itself go, we clearly also need some hammers, chisels, saws—and especially suction hoses.

Their Bodies, Ourselves