I continue to observe, with fascination, the slow infiltration of ayahuasca into American popular culture. And now ayahuasca has appeared — much as it did on the show Weeds, which we discussed here — on the hugely popular plastic-surgery soap opera Nip/Tuck.

Left to right: Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh), Julia McNamara (Joely Richardson), Christian Troy (Julian McMahon)

The show centers on the dysfunctional lives and relationships of two plastic surgeons — Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon). Sean is a brilliant surgeon, plagued by self-doubt, pathetically dependent on his wife Julia (Joely Richardson), and easily manipulated by Christian; yet, at the same time, he is himself passive-aggressively manipulative and pathologically unable to resist cheating on his wife. Christian, a mediocre surgeon and a compulsively self-destructive womanizer, depends on Sean for his success, attempts ruthlessly to control him under the guise of their long friendship, and periodically has sex with Julia. In fact, Christian is the father of Matt (John Hensley), whom Sean long believed was his and Julia’s child.

It is little surprise that, in its debut season, Nip/Tuck was the highest-rated new series on American basic cable.

The show is engrossing, in much the same way that a slow-motion train wreck is engrossing. The underlying theme of the show is superficiality in all its forms — the vacuity of the culture first of Miami and then of Los Angeles; the obsessive quest for physical perfection; the commodification of beauty. In its best seasons, and its best episodes, the quest for superficial beauty through plastic surgery mirrors the superficial nature of the characters’ relationships.

In the episode we are considering — the twentieth of the fifth season, based on the widely publicized case of the Indonesian fisherman Dede, called the Tree Man — Sean has been treating a patient named Budi Sabri, whose entire body is covered with overgrown warts, which have become so large and elongated on his hands and feet that they have come to resemble the roots of a tree. Sean has also been dating the sexually voracious and adventuresome anesthesiologist Theodora “Teddy” Rowe (Rose McGowan), who has been trying to loosen his uptight persona — for example, by having sex on the bed of a stranger’s house while it is being shown by a real estate agent. Now they are heading out into the desert on a motorcycle to meet with a shaman; the clip is short enough to be worth transcribing in its entirety:

Shaman: I am a shaman. Welcome.
Teddy: We fasted like you asked.
Shaman: Good. Have you ever experienced ayahuasca before?
Sean: I dropped acid a few times in college.
Shaman: Ayahuasca is much stronger. You’re both about to go much deeper than you ever have before.
Sean: What do you mean, deeper?
Shaman: It is possible under the power of the tea to cleanse yourself of all anxieties and depressions. You can even find a greater spirituality. But there is a price. The Incas call it the vine of the dead for a reason. [Sean drinks and begins to vomit.] The nausea will be extreme. You will want to die. But you must have strong courage and discipline. And if you are lucky, you may experience what is called the murdering of the ego.
Teddy: Actually, I think I’d like to try that.
Sean: Yeah.
[Both drink. The shaman sings, and Teddy begins to laugh. Seam hallucinates that he is confronted by Budi Sabri.]
Budi Sabri: You are petrified, Dr. McNamara. Untouchable like me. Not human.
Sean: I can’t move!
Budi Sabri: That is your curse.
[Sean returns from his vision to hear Teddy still laughing.]
Teddy: This is fantastic.
Shaman: Are you happy now?
[Sean has a vision that he is being rooted to the ground.]
Shaman: Are you happy now? Are you happy now? [Budi Sabri and Teddy both laugh.]

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