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'Nip/Tuck' creator-writer may not return next season

| Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004

Let's pretend we're standing at the water cooler: Did you watch "Nip/Tuck" this week•

There was Sean, laying in bed, gun in hand, waiting for his second round with the Carver, the Miami serial rapist who preys on the beautiful because "beauty is a curse on the world." But in the season finale's last moment, the masked Carver broke into Christian's bachelor pad instead. And that's how it ended! With Christian, the show's center of masculinity, the sexiest man to wear scrubs on television since George Clooney, paralyzed in his bed, a tear streaming down his face, as The Carver plunged a big knife.

"You live by the knife, you die by the knife," Ryan Murphy deadpanned in his office on the afternoon in August he distributed the finale script to the cast. "I just killed a lead. It had to happen. It's the truth of the story."

The show's creator-writer was in high spirits because of the ratings drawn by the previous night's episode, guest starring real-life conjoined twins Rose and Raven Rosenberg. The season-ending episode, he said, he wrote to feel like a series finale for him -- in case he did not return to the show for its third season.

"What (else) could I possibly come up with?" the 39-year-old former journalist said.

But after production ended a few weeks later, Murphy was less final about his finale. "I don't know if Christian's dead or not dead. I love Julian (McMahon). I would never want to hurt him. I really have no idea what I'm going to do."

Murphy's contract with FX has not been renewed, but not because the powers-that-be do not want him. "We absolutely intend to have Ryan back and will negotiate fully to make that happen," said Peter Liguori, FX's president and chief executive.

It might be easy to presume that Murphy is just holding out for big bucks. His is, after all, the No. 1 original basic cable show among 18- to 49-year-olds, labeled by TV Guide the "coolest show on television" this season. But whether or how Murphy remains attached to "Nip/Tuck" is more about the shot he's been given to direct his first feature film in February, "Running With Scissors," which he adapted from the best-selling book by Augusten Burroughs. Brad Pitt will produce, and it tentatively stars Julianne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brian Cox.

And so the season ends with two cliffhangers: Will Christian survive the Carver's sharp blade• Will Murphy return to tell the story?

As if Christian dying -- or at least being grievously injured -- weren't enough, it turns out that Ava Moore, the life coach coquette, used to be a man. Her 17-year-old son, Adrian, with whom she had an incestuous relationship, is dead. Joan Rivers, playing herself, refers to her legendary nip-tucked face as a "lie." Even Alec Baldwin makes an appearance as Ava's ex-husband, a retired plastic surgeon who now cultivates orchids.

And that's only one episode -- how did we get here?

If you're not part of the "Nip/Tuck" cult, which averaged 3.7 million viewers on FX each Tuesday night, bear with us.

When the second season opened in June, Miami plastic surgeons and best friends Sean McNamara and Christian Troy (Dylan Walsh and McMahon) were at the top of their game, after sending a cocaine dealer who was blackmailing them to prison by altering his face to look like an FBI most-wanted suspect. As the doctors both turned 40, Sean and Christian fretted about the lines on their foreheads and sagging buttocks, but they celebrated with the loves of their lives. Sean with a surprise party at home; Christian with the baby boy he had thought was his.

Sixteen episodes later, there were more than a few wrinkles because, as Murphy says, this drama is never about happiness. Sean, who took to operating pro bono on the Carver's rape victims' slashed faces, was stabbed and threatened with worse by the masked rapist if the surgeon continued to destroy his handiwork. Julia McNamara, played by Joely Richardson, revealed she had slept with Christian in college, making him the biological father of Matt, her 17-year-old son. Sean kicked Julia out and tried to sever his partnership with Christian, but the conjoined-twins case and an ensuing three-way with Christian and a hooker helped him see the light.

Unable to be intimate with adults, Christian fell in love with Wilber, the baby of sex addict Gina Russo (Jessalyn Gilsig), one of Christian's conquests. Christian agreed to adopt Wilber and help raise him, but they both lost him to Wilber's biological father. Christian gave fatherhood a second chance by helping Liz, the sharp-tongued lesbian anesthesiologist, become pregnant. But she aborted the fetus when she learned the baby would have Down syndrome. Then Gina, whom Christian likens to the herpes virus, broke the news that she was HIV-positive.

"Every episode of this show feels like a season finale," Walsh said. "It's a hyper-intense reality, but that's Ryan's style. He's great at creating expectations and then spinning off into another direction."

In one month, Murphy will turn 40, and that's only where the similarities with his protagonists begin. "Nip/Tuck" was born from a visit to a plastic surgeon Murphy made for a journalistic expose in the '90s that left him wondering if his insecurities would disappear if he pinned his ears, moved his jaw a millimeter and repaired his broken nose.

"(The doctor) was like a salesman, but he hooked me," said Murphy, who was the Miami Herald's Los Angeles bureau chief in the '90s and has also freelanced for Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. "I thought he was correct for like 10 minutes. Then I thought, I can't possibly. It was so convincing. I understand, though, how women can do that. Maybe as a gay man I can relate to it."

Murphy is once again transforming himself as he takes on "Running With Scissors." At best, the movie could interfere with "Nip/Tuck's" production schedule; at worst, from the network's perspective, it could give Murphy a taste of the movie business he will be unwilling to give up.

"I was happy when I was doing the show, but I feel that in my personal life, I mirror the culture," Murphy said. "We live in an age of discontent. We live in a restless age. Especially men. We are always thinking: What's next• And that's me. I feel restless."

It's hard to imagine a Murphy-less show, filled, as it is, with his stylish touches. McMahon always looks dashing in sunglasses that match his shirts and sometimes even the pillows on Christian's white couch. In one of the finale's last scenes, Ava Moore (Famke Janssen), banished from town, walks through the airport dressed like Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," with a big hat and sunglasses. Murphy, who is ribbed on set for his designer fashions, picked out her wardrobe and made her change her lipstick three times.

"Ryan is such a wonderful combination of heart and head," said Roma Maffia, who plays Liz Cruz, the anesthesiologist and mother hen of the medical practice. "You can't second-guess anything he does."

Murphy acknowledged that Sean and Christian represent two sides of him. Sean is the tortured artist, ruled by his conscience but hardly infallible. Christian is the slick player, self-centered and superficial, but with more heart than he likes to let on.

"There's a little of all of those people in me," Murphy said, and he laughed. "I'm like Liz too. I'm always the one with a quip."

And the musical selections. Whether classical or samba, tango or pop, the music on "Nip/Tuck" almost figures as a character. It could also be the soundtrack of Murphy's childhood, since he often delves into his old 45s for ideas. Murphy's favorite episode had Sean and Christian separating conjoined twins to classical music. The episode, which sounds farfetched but was executed like poetry in motion, ends with Sean and Christian sewing the dead twins back together at the request of their mother and Sean admitting to Christian that he will never forgive him but "I am a better doctor because of you. I am a better doctor with you."

"When the mother of the girls pulls the plug in front of Sean, we thought maybe the episode should end there," Liguori said. "But there was Ryan, explaining why that wasn't the emotional peak, that he wanted the men to be in a three-way. . . . Was it scintillating• Yes. But it resolved itself in a deeper place than you ever thought."

As outlandish as Murphy and his writers can get, there's enough substance to the characters that it is easy to go along for the ride. Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Julia's mother, Erica, scored for womankind in the season premiere by seducing a younger man -- Christian.

"That's the genius of Ryan," said Richardson, who is Redgrave's real-life daughter. "He took a woman in her 60s and made her beautiful and desirable. She was in control of a man no other woman can control."

At the end of the second season, Christian, the show's romantic lead, finds himself in a familiar place (his bed), while Art Garfunkel croons "All I Know," but in unfamiliar circumstances (alone and helpless). If Garfunkel's lyrics feel like foreshadowing -- "But the ending always comes at last/Ending always comes too fast/They come too fast/But they pass too slow" -- don't worry. As McMahon put it, "They tried to kill me 5,000 times on 'Charmed,' and that never worked."

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