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Cutting-Edge Television

Want yet another reason to be grateful for VCRs and Tivo? Check your TV listings for Tuesday nights. In addition to the outrageous plastic-surgery drama Nip/Tuck on FX, you'll find the gripping British spy thriller MI-5 on A&E. Both shows are smart, daring, and light-years better than the sort of reality drivel the broadcast networks shovel upon summer viewers.

MI-5, known overseas as Spooks, is Britain's answer to the nail-biting intrigue of Fox's 24. It makes the usual BBC substitution of added psychological depth for flashy pyrotechnics-- they don't have the budget to show explosions so much as imply them-- which is not necessarily a bad thing. Each week, we follow a grimly professional team of the U.K.'s finest intelligence officers as they track, infiltrate and undermine hatemongers, abortion clinic bombers, and other real-world bogeymen. Authentic news footage is woven into each week's storyline, emphasizing the plausibility of MI-5's unnerving scenarios.

Like 24, MI-5 is packed with startling twists and a refusal to pull any dramatic punches. It's slower, and talkier, but it lacks its American cousin's conspicuous misogyny; all the characters, male and female, are both competent and fallible in believably equal measure. (Not surprisingly, MI-5's American characters are arrogant bullies who swagger around with little regard for the British agents' more cautious, moral approach.) MI-5 also spends more time getting to know its villains, notching up the creep factor by taking you into the homes and twisted family lives of these entirely monstrous-- but recognizably human-- individuals.

MI-5's most intriguing aspect is the way its heroes have to lie for a living. Their lives and the lives of countless others depend upon how skillfully they can deceive, betray and manipulate people-- vicious or kind, guilty or innocent. The lies don't stop when they leave the office, either; some of MI-5's most marvelous tension comes from the tightrope act hero Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden) walks in his off hours, living under a fake identity with his girlfriend and her young daughter. He loves them, but he can't be honest with them, and every suspicious glance from his girlfriend hits him like a punch in the stomach. Yet you understand why he keeps up the charade-- MI-5 doesn't hesitate to ram home the horrific consequences of an unsuccessful lie. Witness the alarming scene in episode two where a helpless Quinn watches in horror as race-baiting goons dunk his earnest rookie partner's hand, then her entire head, into a deep-fryer.

As stomach-turning as that concept may be, it's child's play compared to the smorgasbord of blood and guts served up by Nip/Tuck, FX's new summer drama series about a pair of Miami plastic surgeons. If nothing else, you've got to salute the show for refusing to glamorize the plastic surgery business. Patients don't magically go under the knife and, a few scenes later, reappear looking utterly stunning. No, Nip/Tuck gives you startling, lovingly filmed closeups of scalpels, bone saws, suction hoses and chisels doing to the human body the kind of things that you really, really shouldn't watch while eating. (Not that it ever stops me, unfortunately.) And then there are the recovery times, and the risk of secondary infections.

Bookworms like me can sit back on the couch and ponder the irony of such hideousness being undertaken in the pursuit of society's concept of beauty. But that sort of high-minded philosophizing doesn't exactly drag in viewers by the busload. Luckily for FX's bottom line, Nip/Tuck balances its gleeful amounts of gore with equally gleeful amounts of sex, pursuing naughtiness with all the delicacy and restraint of a passel of drunken frat boys. Dude, check it out! That doctor's doin' the nasty with a hot model just so he can land her as a client! And now he's in a threesome with those underage twins! And now those two teenage lesbians just got caught making out in their cheerleader outfits! This is awesome!

The funny thing is, Nip/Tuck could stick with the blood, and the sex, and its basic premise-- one doctor, Sean (Dylan Walsh), is a nice-guy family man, while his partner Christian (Julian McMahon) is an ethics-free playboy-- and still be a perfectly enjoyable guilty pleasure. It's got a great cast, plenty of dark wit, and a unique and well-explored central idea. But it's kept me watching week after week because it's consistently smarter and deeper than it needs to be, especially in regard to characterization.

Sean may be a nice guy, but he can also be a hapless schmuck. He's short-sighted, occasionally selfish and hamstrung by his own good intentions. He's a generally lousy husband and father, however hard he may try. He's also got a scarily calm dark side that emerges whenever he has to, say, dispose of a corpse by trussing it with hams and feeding it to alligators. Christian, for all his Lothario ways, demonstrates ironclad integrity in the clutch. He'll give up his health, his dignity, even a tryst with the one woman he gives a damn about, all for the sake of his well-hidden conscience. I mean, honestly, if some scary tattooed drug lord were about to shoot Botox into your most delicate of parts, would you have the nerve to keep quiet to protect your best friend?

So there you have it: the summer's best new shows are an explosion-free spy drama about a bunch of professional deceivers, and a lurid morality play that reserves its most smoldering love scene for a mostly clothed, middle-aged married couple. And they're on the same night. Warm up your Tivos and leave your expectations at the door.


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