When "Nip/Tuck" made its debut in 2003, it broke cable-viewing records and instantly distinguished itself with its stylized look, tongue-in-cheek tone, gorgeous stars and fresh take on America's obsession with beauty and youth. Those qualities earned it a Golden Globe for best drama, critical acclaim and water-cooler buzz that lasted for most of its first four seasons.
But when one of FX's signature series quietly wrapped last week on the Paramount lot, it did so without the usual fanfare associated with the end of a noteworthy show. In part, the silent send-off was because TV viewers won't see the "Nip/Tuck" finale, which finished shooting on June 12, for a long time, probably as late as 2011, making it tricky to publicize. Behind the scenes too, during the last week of production, there was an awkward sense that the end had already happened, since much of the crew had already moved to creator Ryan Murphy's new Fox musical, "Glee," last year, and Murphy himself was out of the country location-scouting for an upcoming movie.
"It's sad because it feels incomplete," said script supervisor Diana Valentine, who asked the cast to sign her finale script in between takes of shooting the show's last family dinner scene, which included almost every major character. Valentine, who joined the series in its second season, worked on "Beverly Hills, 90210" for its entire run. "It's not the same feeling I had when I was wrapping on '90210'. It feels incomplete, kind of separate. It's very hard."
In truth, the cast of the series that TV Guide asserted during its second season was the "coolest show on television" has been ready to move on for some time. "Nip/Tuck's" series finale will be the show's 100th episode, a rare marker in cable television (the only popular cable series that came close was "Sex and the City" with 94 episodes) that FX wanted to reach with its top-rated show.
But if the actors had had their way, the show would have ended in the fourth season when it was still the No. 1 cable series among 18- to 49-year-olds, a ranking it held for its first four years, and the critics were still in its corner. Though its overall viewership has been steady and strong over the years -- Season 5 drew an average of 3.4 million viewers -- it is now less popular in the 18-to-49 demographic than both USA's "Burn Notice" and TNT's "The Closer."
"I feel we've reached a creative impasse with regards to what we can do with this story," said John Hensley, who played Matt, one of the most self-destructive characters ever created for TV. "I feel like it was, quite frankly, told a long time ago. I say that trying to be right-sized about this because I am very grateful for this opportunity. I just feel that we were a show that was very good and innovative at one point and we've gone the way of so many shows before us. Our moment has passed."
"Nip/Tuck," which used hyper-real and shocking situations -- remember the murderous brother and sister known as the Carver? -- to examine the price people are willing to pay for physical beauty and the internal consequences they suffer as a result, was centered on the unconditional brotherly love between two plastic surgeons, Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon). Sean was the highly skilled surgeon who claimed he wanted to improve the world and felt morally superior to his best friend. Christian was the superficial ladies' man who had more heart than he let on and made no excuses about who he was.
In the five seasons that have aired, the doctors, who are in their 40s, have almost died several times, slept with dozens of women, broken up their partnership a few times and dumped a dead body in the Florida Everglades. In the 19 new episodes, which will probably air over two seasons and may begin in January, the series will become even more operatic and dark, elements that, critics say, have diminished its pleasures over time.
"The same thing that bothers me about this show is really what was great about it," said Walsh, taking a short break in his trailer. "It existed or came about as an antidote to 'ER,' which was a great show but had such an earnest tone as if that's reality. It didn't include the irreverent things and wicked humor and over-the-top scenes of emotion. And 'Nip/Tuck' brought all that craziness, where things happened too quickly and intensely and it made you laugh while you were getting caught up in it. Of course, the longer we went, the more ridiculous it was going to seem, but that was always our thing. It really wasn't a great show. It was a great ride."
Especially for Walsh and McMahon, whose iconic characters boosted their careers. The two actors, who established the set's collegial tone with their friendship, finally let go of Sean and Christian on Friday after a day of shooting broadcast promos for the show.
"You can't deny the place that the show has in the history of television, and I feel personally that I played a pretty extraordinary character on a TV show," McMahon said during a telephone interview.
The two stars took the crew out for a post-production celebration at Beso in Hollywood when they completed filming their last scene, a surgery with Roma Maffia, who played lesbian anesthesiologist Liz. They already had said goodbye to Joely Richardson four days earlier, whose last scene was the family dinner that echoed other family gatherings of previous seasons.
"There have been so many goodbyes that maybe, honestly, the goodbye gene is spent now and now I'm ready for this goodbye with this story," Richardson said. But hours later, when her work on "Nip/Tuck" was over, Richardson wept as she went around the room quietly hugging everyone. Thirteen-year-old Kelsey Lynn Batelaan, who played Annie McNamara, received a long embrace from Walsh when she completed her work.
"Right now, it's kind of overwhelming and there are mixed emotions," Maffia said. "But I think when time passes, or when I drive by the lot, it's gonna be like damn."
If there is a surprise to the way "Nip/Tuck" ends, it's in its restrained quality, which several of the actors said they appreciated after seasons of shocking and preposterous story lines.
"I've always thought the show should have been simpler than it was so, for me, it was nice to have a little less than what we've been expanding upon for the last number of years," McMahon said. "I think you'll have an emotionally justifiable episode in the end."
In separate interviews, Walsh and McMahon both said that what they'd miss the most about working on the show was each other.
"I'll miss every day sitting in one trailer or another, talking about everything going on with the show and our lives," Walsh said. "We are what Ryan wanted the show to be. I love him. That's the best thing I got out of the show -- it was him."