“I like to get dirty,” declares Lucy Spiller, a Bonnie Fuller-type editor of two popular celebrity rags, in the pilot episode of FX’s new tabloid melodrama Dirt. It’s one of many obvious slogans-as-dialogue, but it works within the context of the headline-making industry in which Spiller (Courteney Cox—minus the Arquette, despite co-producing the show with hubby David) is employed. When E surfaces at a party, a tickled actress proclaims, “How retro,” before you can even roll your eyes.
Dirt’s pilot episode follows a has-been actor, Holt (Josh Stewart), who leaks a juicy story about fellow actor, Kira (an emaciated Shannyn Sossomon), in exchange for a glowing remark about his career in a puff piece about his girlfriend. The leak leads to a string of unfortunate events that results in Kira’s death, but not before Holt gets a call from David Fincher offering him a part in his new flick starring—guess who?—Kira! We don’t get to relish in that uncomfortable situation, however, because, of course, Kira’s a corpse. It’s all unbelievable, but mostly offensive. Yes, actors are human beings too, but so are the paparazzi. Both are giving the public what they want, and it’s this incestuous, co-dependant symbiosis that Dirt only touches upon in its first couple of episodes. The concept of two magazines—one to dish celebrity dirt and the other to exalt the very same celebs—being run by the same people is deliciously subversive—that is, until Spiller convinces her publisher to merge the two rags into one super-pub.
Despite consistently delivering a believable, likeable neurotic perfectionist on Friends, Cox was the least celebrated member of the cast; here, she’s equally adept at playing a driven careerist, and there are enough cracks in her icy surface to hint at the possibility that Spiller could eventually become a two- (if not a three-) dimensional character. That said, Dirt poses the same problem as many other new television dramas: due to shorter life spans and quicker plug-pulling, writers are forced to create entire character arcs in a single episode. By the end of the pilot, Spiller—who, at the beginning of the episode, plays a seemingly tough-love den mother to her catty staff by applying the old adage of never putting anything in writing to the world of Treo instant-messaging, only to then callously fire one of the offenders—is already breaking down and realizing the effects of her evil ways. Cox is no Meryl Streep and Lucy Spiller is hardly Miranda Priestly. Spiller spends an entire episode trying to blow her load, literally—there’s an embarrassing scene involving a vibrator—and she only succeeds when she hits pay dirt.
Dirt’s not just dirty, it’s messy. There’s a completely unnecessary subplot involving a creepy, “functional schizophrenic” photographer (Ian Hart) who sees blood raining down from the sky and hears voices, including his cancer-stricken cat’s and the dead Kira’s, that feels like it belongs in another show entirely. The program is pornographic and choppy (though it should be noted that the second episode settles into a far easier-to-watch rhythm) and it’s about as trashy as the tabloids it hopes to skewer. It remains to be seen if Dirt will truly be an equal opportunity satire or just another actor-produced attack on the paparazzi.