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Scalpel-sharp 'Nip/Tuck' slices into La-La Land

Lauren Hutton plays a ruthless publicist hired to transform the plastic surgeons into star doctors. Lauren Hutton plays a ruthless publicist hired to transform the plastic surgeons into star doctors. (Michael Becker/FX)

FX's "Nip/Tuck" may be the best TV series ever made about beauty, lust, and the lust for beauty. The plastic-surgery drama just keeps on spinning smart, tart, funny, tragic, sexy, grotesque tales about vanity and contemporary American life. Just when you think creator Ryan Murphy and his "Nip/Tuck" writers are about to run out of fresh material, they devise unexpected new ways to illuminate the human condition and our battle - always lost - against time and genetics.

As it enters its fifth season, tonight at 10, "Nip/Tuck" and its two plastic surgeons have moved from Miami to LA, where Sean facetiously asks, "Has anyone in this town not had plastic surgery?" The location change works beautifully for the show; La-La Land presents Drs. McNamara and Troy with a whole new level of soullessness and superficiality. Now, they must break into a town where moral questions about surgery addiction and distorted body image are pointless. They have to either go Hollywood or go home, so they hire a ruthless publicist, played by Lauren Hutton, to help increase their profile and bring in high-paying business.

Going Hollywood means behaving like stars, and then becoming stars. The doctors get a gig as consultants on a ridiculous TV medical drama called "Hearts & Scalpels," and one of them actually appears on the show. What's great about this plot is that it allows "Nip/Tuck" to turn its blunt knife on itself. By making fun of "Hearts & Scalpels," which stars an egotistical actor (Bradley Cooper) and an insecure actress (Paula Marshall), "Nip/Tuck" is able to make fun of "Nip/Tuck." Tonight, in a hysterical bit featuring Jennifer Coolidge, "Hearts & Scalpels" does a plot based on one of Sean and Christian's most absurd cases from season 2, about a woman who had skin transposed from her genitals to her mouth.

The new location for "Nip/Tuck" will also help the show zero in on that group most tormented by issues of youth and beauty - women in Hollywood. Sean and Christian have dealt with the plight of actors before, including one memorable episode in which Joan Rivers appeared as herself, remorsefully hoping to have all her surgery reversed. (In a typically sick "Nip/Tuck" twist, Rivers sees a computer simulation of what she'll look like and changes her mind. Indeed, she decides to have another face lift.) But this season, the show will be able to explore the psychic cost to actresses, who are compelled to nip and tuck even in their 30s. Tonight, an aging starlet played by Daphne Zuniga falls prey to the pressure.

The shamelessness of "Nip/Tuck" returns intact, which is a good thing. This show is anything but subtle - its strength is a willingness to go over the top with its satire of modern life. In the season's first two episodes alone, you will meet a pair of dueling Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and you will see one desperate regular character humiliate himself by posing for a skin magazine. And one of the most spoiled plot twists of the new season (alert! alert!) finds Sean's ex-wife, Julia (Joely Richardson), moving to LA to be with her new lover - a woman, Olivia, played by Portia de Rossi. The day "Nip/Tuck" stops being so bold is the day I stop watching.

These days, TV is chock-full of makeover reality series that promise happiness. Fix your skin, they seem to say, and you'll fix your spirit. "Nip/Tuck," with all its garishness and absurdity, is the conscience of those shows. It's here to remind us that you really can't entirely cure despair with plastic surgery or, as this season will show, fame.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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Nip/Tuck

Starring: Dylan Walsh, Julian McMahon, Jennifer Coolidge, Paula Marshall, Oliver Platt, Daphne Zuniga, Bradley Cooper

On: FX

Tonight, 10-11

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