I spent the first half of Nip/Tuck's debut season last year disliking it because the series seemed so pleased with its own dislikability; my unwiggling rule of thumb is, I don't watch any show that's more smug than I am. The tale of two friends, Sean (the assiduously droopy Dylan Walsh) and Christian (the satiric satyr Julian McMahon) -- plastic surgeons who run a Miami Beach chop shop for the vain and wealthy -- ''Nip/Tuck'' was made for the FX channel in more ways than one. As basic cable's answer to HBO, FX can be naughtier than the networks, but it can't unload the moist blasts of nudity, violence, and profanity that await purchasers of pay cable. The result on ''Nip/Tuck'' was an initially unsavory mixture of amorality, blood, and the sort of blunt speech that's more censorious than profane.
But ultimately ''Nip/Tuck'''s sheer energy -- its vigor for the vulgar, its delight in decadence, its zest for the zeitgeist -- won me over. Well, that and the infectious enthusiasm of a colleague who told me I'd missed a subplot in which Sean's teen son, Matt (the ghostly wan John Hensley, who looks like Michael Jackson with a better hairdresser and a good plastic surgeon), engaged in a three-way with a couple of gal pals before running over a fellow student while driving stoned. Now that's the kind of multileveled sordidness that can give premium cable a run for its money.
And so, fully caught up via DVD, I approached the first three episodes of ''Nip/Tuck'''s sophomore season ready to be appalled in a pleasurable way. For the most part, my seedy desires have been fulfilled. Joely Richardson, who plays Sean's wife, Julia, is easily the best actor in a series that hasn't shown much need for nuanced emotion (squinching eyes in either under-the-knife pain or orgasmic pleasure is pretty much all any player needs here). But Julia's pampered-housewife ennui was alluring right from the start, and it only gets better now that Julia's mother, played by guest star Vanessa Redgrave -- Richardson's real-life mother -- has swanned into town to demand a face-lift from Sean before going out on her latest book tour.
''Nip/Tuck'' is, in short, a great soap opera disguised as very good prime-time trash. Creator Ryan Murphy was once an entertainment journalist, including a stint at Entertainment Weekly, and therefore knows how to hook an audience with catchphrases (no matter who writes the episode, it is mandatory every week for either Sean or Christian to say to a prospective patient, ''Tell me what you don't like about yourself'') and recycled pop wisdom (''It took almost dying to realize that aging isn't a curse, it's a privilege,'' intones a patient in the season premiere).
Murphy's print past also makes him an excellent, ruthless editor: He has jettisoned characters that didn't work (such as last season's hectoring drag, Dr. Grace Santiago) and added new ones (the aforementioned Redgrave plus ''X-Men'''s Famke Janssen, terrific as an aggressive ''life coach'' for Julia). Murphy also delineates more fully the roles of supporting players who'd been only sketched in last season. The best of these is Jessalyn Gilsig as Christian's sexaholic girlfriend Gina. Clearly relishing her liberation from the hellhole David E. Kelley used to call ''Boston Public,'' Gilsig is ferociously sexy and mean. And the fact that Gina is now a new mom has -- as so often occurs in life, don't you find? -- only increased these qualities.
Christian isn't the child's biological father, but he's developed a fondness for little Wilber that gives Gina emotional leverage in the couple's bellowing battles. Plus, now that the series has gotten Sean's tedious midlife crisis out of the way in season 1, it's cursing him with something worse -- a mild palsy that makes him a risk as a surgeon. By giving its two macho protagonists humbling obstacles, and by allowing Matt's hit-and-run misadventure to come back and haunt him in a way he didn't expect, ''Nip/Tuck'' is poised to open up and reveal what I never thought it would: a healthy, vibrant heart.