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Vivid story lines cut to the chase in 'Nip/Tuck'

I can't say I'm a huge fan of "Nip/Tuck" (10 tonight, FX), which last year was basic cable's highest-rated series among viewers age 18 through 49 and won the Golden Globe for best drama.

But each season I can't help but take a look at the plastic surgeons, Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon), whose lives have undergone an extreme makeover in two seasons.

Usually, I'm quickly reminded why I'm often repulsed by the series, which deserves its TV-MA rating. It isn't the high sexual content, which has made the show loaded with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll such an inviting target of conservative groups. If they're looking for reasons to advance their crusade tonight, they won't be disappointed.

No, I'm more repulsed by the occasional, graphic depiction of some surgeries and the over-the-top story lines. Tonight's 90-minute, third season premiere involves an obese woman who has been stuck to a couch for three years. You don't have to be a doctor to smell what is coming. Next week's patient is a bright gorilla that needs plastic surgery so the intellectual gains she has made will be passed on to future generations of the species.

Each case is symbolic and eventually delivers a message to the plastic surgeons that are in pain, trapped in their pasts and facing uncertain futures. Sean is in pain because his marriage to beautiful Julia (Joely Richardson) is nearing the final turn, and his relationship with his son Matt (John Hensley) has hit another snag after he sent Matt's transsexual lover, Ava, away.

Christian is in pain because of the aftermath of last season's cliff-hanger, which found him at the mercy of a knife-wielding villain, "The Carver," who has been slicing up people in the Miami area. The Carver scenes are as disturbing as any involving plastic surgery.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal what condition Christian is in physically or emotionally. But he is fortunate that juicy-lipped Rhona Mitra ("Boston Public") is on the case. And his pillow case. She plays Detective Kit McGraw. Bruno Campos, who showed up as a plastic surgeon late last season, also has joined the cast full-time. Alec Baldwin, Joan Rivers and Jill Clayburgh all return as guest stars in episodes.

The first two episodes have a good deal of dark humor, much of it supplied in scenes between Richardson and her real-life and TV mother, scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave. And if any show needed comedy relief, it is "Nip/Tuck."

It remains as disturbing as ever, a show that doesn't look like any other on TV and purposely tries to get a reaction from viewers. In an interview in Los Angeles, series creator Ryan Murphy said he wants the audience to be unnerved.

"I think we live in a world where the middle is accepted as sometimes the best, and I don't agree with that," said Murphy. "When I watch a movie or another television show, I want to feel something . . . I would say that every episode is like a Grimm's fairy tale. It has a moral at the end."

McMahon feels the actors benefit because their characters never have an easy day.

"Every character seems to be consistently on the precipice of an explosion or going over the edge, so you continually have to be at that level," he said.

Richardson believes people become obsessed with the series because "all the characters are just so extreme, going through extreme situations and emotions every episode."

Murphy plans to keep the characters on edge.

"Even before I wanted to do something about plastic surgeons, I wanted to do something about the idea of how people transform themselves," Murphy said.

Julia and her angry son Matt are at the forefront of this year's transformations. "They sort of spiral off and recreate themselves," said Murphy, "which is the theme of the show, recreation and transformation."

Sometimes, the transformations even surprise Murphy. Take the older woman, Ava (Famke Janssen), who rocked Matt's world last season. "Last year, I had no idea that Famke would become a man (in) I think episode 12," revealed Murphy.

He thinks he understands why "Nip/Tuck" doesn't get any respect from Emmy voters."Well, maybe the show is a little too controversial," said Murphy.

Maybe? Even a gorilla could tell you that this isn't a show that Emmy voters would love.But for those who do love it, it looks like another disturbingly entertaining season is ahead.

Review: 3 stars out of 4

* * *

NBC's "The Office" (9:30 tonight, Channel 2 after NBC's best new show, "My Name is Earl"), the mockumentary starring Steve Carell, has a new fast-paced opening. But office manager Michael Scott (Carell) is as clueless as ever as he gives out some annual awards that his staff dreads as much as the thought of listening to him perform rap.

One of the best moments comes when Scott gives an employee an award for good work, which is a letdown because the same guy got one for great work a year earlier.

Receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) figures the only way to survive the ceremonies is to become a fall-down, happy, sweet drunk. This dry comedy certainly needs some sweetener to expand its appeal. It isn't a great episode, but it is a good one that makes you feel some sympathy for Scott and foreshadows a spicy change in Pam's romantic life.

Review: 3 stars

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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