Joey, Laverne & Shirley, Private Practice: They're all part of TV's long and lame history of characters disastrously relocating to Los Angeles. The plastic surgeons of Nip/Tuck seemed likely to follow the ruinous trend. After two years of grotesque, mean-spirited story lines (the serial-killing eunuch, Brooke Shields' self-hating shrink, etc.), the FX drama has vacated its Miami base for season 5, dropping newly divorced Sean (Dylan Walsh) and playboy Christian (Julian McMahon) into L.A., the epicenter of shallowness.
Who knew a relocation to that most exploited of cities would be so invigorating? The first two episodes, written by creator Ryan Murphy, take immediate advantage of the new Hollywood setting: The premiere even boasts a posh homage to that go-to film scene, the ''shopping montage,'' in which the boys try on more outfits than Julia Roberts. But the show's revamp isn't limited to insider jokes about the Ivy. Nip/Tuck has reclaimed its sense of humor. That's largely due to the near absence of delicate Julia (Joely Richardson), now living in Manhattan with her new lover, whose identity we won't spoil. No offense to Richardson, a nuanced actress, but never has a character overstayed her welcome more. Julia, that hairline fracture of a woman, has whined about self-fulfillment 1,000 times too many. Richardson remains a cast regular, so the best we can hope for is limited interaction let that marriage finally die, so we can sit back and watch Sean and Christian do their brother-lover-nemesis banter.
The duo have something fresh to snipe about: Their sharky new publicist (Lauren Hutton) lands them high-profile consulting gigs on a plastic-surgery hospital drama called Hearts 'n Scalpels. Sean shines, and lands a supporting role; Christian bombs, and suddenly it's Sean who's the hot kid on the scene, leaving Christian glowering in his hair plugs. Even more surprising is Hearts 'n Scalpels itself. Like the L.A. relocation, this plotline shouldn't work. Shows-within-shows are generally explosions of gaudy self-mockery that exist only so the writers and actors can display what good sports they are. (See, TV audience, we get it! Do you see? Are you sure?...Swear?) Hearts 'n Scalpels preens along with just the right level of self-satire and, even better, its ''star'' is Alias' Bradley Cooper, who plays his inflated hero-doc with gusto. In one scene, he's out of tourniquets for his bleeding patient, and demands that everyone forfeit their neckties, only to scream in agony: ''Oh, dammit, it's casual Fridays!'' So far, this is one smart move. B+