PASADENA, Calif. - It's not often you hear the stars of a TV series criticize the show in front of its primary author, but FX's Nip/Tuck has never been an ordinary TV show. Graphic and sensational, the series about two Miami plastic surgeons returns for its fourth season at 10 p.m. Sept. 5, and the stars are relieved to be past season three and the story of The Carver, a serial disfigurer.
"It was just sort of gloom and doom. My joke was that we were the only plastic surgeons who should actually wear badges and carry guns, because it felt like a different show for a while," said star Dylan Walsh, who plays Dr. Sean McNamara. "It was a departure. And I think it was great to do that for a season, but when it was done, I did feel relieved."
Series creator Ryan Murphy makes no apologies about season three, but he understands why his stars were dissatisfied.
"When you're doing a show about relationships and then you add a crime element, I did feel at the end that I missed these three people sitting in a room and talking, and I missed them talking about their children and their squabbles," Murphy said. "So, yes, it was a concerted effort to redirect the show back to something that, for me, always was the heart of the show, which is about these three people and this love triangle and how they lived their lives."
To re-focus the show, Murphy said season four will be smaller and more intimate, concentrating on Sean and Julia McNamara (Joely Richardson) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon). The show will deal more with the established relationships and new problems, including a crisis with the new baby in the McNamara household.
"Last year wasn't my favorite year, I've got to be honest, but this year, it's totally revitalized," McMahon said. "It's exciting to play these characters again, and it's a fun show to watch."
In the season opener McMahon's Christian is challenged by a shrink (guest star Brooke Shields, who will have a recurring role this year) who suggests he may be in love with Sean.
"I've always found Christian a little gay," McMahon said. "Well, certainly a swinger. So I think it's great that we're kind of exploring that side of that."
Also in the first episode, Christian has a three-way sexual escapade with a mother and a daughter (Tracy Scoggins plays the mom), then tries to butch up his apartment, "then you get the gayest apartment you've ever seen," McMahon said. "Ryan said from the beginning, it was kind of a love affair with two heterosexual men. And this is kind of pushing those boundaries a little bit."
Guest stars this season include Kathleen Turner, as a woman who wants a "voice-lift" ("As you say voice-lift, you think of Kathleen Turner, at least I do," Murphy said), and Catherine Deneuve ("When you think Catherine Deneuve, you think French murderess, at least I do," Murphy said), who plays a woman who wants her husband's cremated ashes put in her breast implants so she can always be close to him.
Richardson grimaced at that storyline and shook her head.
Poor PBS is always in doubt about something. If it's not finding a new sponsor for Masterpiece Theatre (still ongoing) or dodging criticism of pledge specials (PBS is still working on improving pledge programming with member stations, too), then it's worrying about funding cuts (stay tuned to see what Congress does in the fall on that front).
And now there's the whole mess of the Federal Communications Commission increasing fines for "indecency." New PBS president Paula Kerger, who made an impressive press tour debut (forthright, secure, not defensive), said she's met with every FCC commissioner to try to get clarity on what is and is not considered "indecent" and to point out that though a $325,000 fine to a commercial broadcaster may not mean much in their bottom line, it could bankrupt a small PBS station that operates on a budget of only a few million dollars annually.
"I cannot tell you as I stand here today that I have a clear understanding," Kerger said. "Some members of the FCC believe they've been very clear on what they've signaled."
Of particular concern is the broadcast of the new Ken Burns 14-hour documentary The War in fall, 2007, which contains "a few instances" of profanity from World War II veterans in documentary-style interviews, according to John Wilson, PBS senior vice president of program services. The profanities used are variants of words forbidden before 10 p.m. in the FCC playbook.
"If you look at a piece of footage that has been edited and unedited, in some cases it doesn't matter, but in some cases it makes a pivotal difference," Kerger said. "If someone is telling a story about their experience in the war and in telling that story, a profanity is uttered, sometimes it makes a really big difference. The impact of it is washed away if it is just bleeped out."
Kerger said she understands some people are sensitive about profanity, but she said for adults who want an unvarnished account in an environment that's been flagged with warnings about the program's contents, such programs should be available, and not only on cable stations.
"To drive those kinds of programs only to cable and write off 15 percent of this country who don't have access to cable television is wrong," she said.
Kerger said she tried to get FCC commissioners to assure her PBS stations would not be fined for airing The War, hoping it could get the same dispensation as a recent broadcast of Saving Private Ryan on ABC. None of the commissioners could assure her the program would not result in fines to PBS stations.
"From our perspective, everything that relates to indecency is all about context," Kerger said. "We put tremendous care into developing programs that will tell a story well, and there are occasions when to tell the story well, those words will be part of the work."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.
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