FX's 'Dirt': A Wickedly Good Wallow In Hollywood

Courteney Cox plays an editor with a thirst for gossip  --  and a knack for generating her own.
Courteney Cox plays an editor with a thirst for gossip -- and a knack for generating her own. (Fx Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

"Lie down with pigs," warned a character in "The Oscar," one of the worst movies ever made, "and you get up smelling like garbage." Nobody utters such cautionary advice in "Dirt," the aptly titled new series from the FX cable network about a gutter-minded tabloid magazine of the same name whose staff has no time to ponder ethical niceties or moral quandaries.

They're too busy rolling in the muck and mire of Hollywood, the trash-and-cash capital of the world, and making it pay. "Dirt" is a love-hate letter to that squalid citadel and to those striving to see how high they can climb and how low they can stoop. Matthew Carnahan, who created the series and wrote the pilot (airing tonight at 10) may be having his croissant and eating it, too -- decrying corrupt showbiz values but buying into them just the same.

He's exploiting exploiters, but he's also putting on a wickedly entertaining show. FX specializes in "edgy" programming; "Dirt" is one big edge, rife with stabbed backs, popped pills, frenzied sex, Machiavellian maneuvers, unveiled threats ("I'll bury you") and an editor who says "I like to get dirty" and keeps proving it.

There is no god but self, relentlessly worshiped, and no religion but opportunism, fanatically followed.

And yet as splashed across the TV screen here, it all kind of looks like, well, fun-- in a crazed and unashamedly melodramatic way.

On the surface, "Dirt" has a crippling shortage of good guys, but these things are relative. Lucy Spiller, played icily by the skeletal Courteney Cox (also one of the executive producers), may be ruthless, amoral and heartless in her dealings as editor of Dirt and Now magazines, but she answers to an owner -- Timothy Bottoms as Gibson Horne -- who is much more vicious and loathsome.

Bottoms has twice played George W. Bush in TV productions (a sitcom and a movie), and you have to wonder if his physical resemblance to the embattled president helped him get the part of the show's baddest Bad Guy.

Dirt is a lowdown, peephole-peeking gossip sheet, while Now, according to the premise, is a more traditional newsweekly that goes back 70 years and concerns itself with matters other than who's pregnant, who's getting a divorce and who's in rehab. Spiller clearly enjoys playing with Dirt more than editing Now, and when Horne tells her to cut costs, she proposes killing one of those publications altogether. Guess which one.

The development seems predictable -- it happens in the third episode -- so it's not really spilling major beans to reveal it. The scenes in "Dirt" that will have people talking, and perhaps gasping, involve mergers of another sort, the kind that happen between Spiller's black silk sheets. She's as brutal in her busy bedroom as she is at the office: When a one-night standee leaves too slowly, after a couple of shouts of "get out," she zaps him in the groin with her handy stun gun. Yes, really.

That happens in the premiere. Episode 2, next week, includes a scene of feminine self-gratification that is unusually graphic even for the randy FX network (the series carries an MA parental guidance rating) in addition to the lusty couplings and racy language scattered throughout the series. The dialogue includes use of an expletive that, if heard on any broadcast network, could bring a rebuke and huge fine from the FCC, but since the Commission does not regulate basic cable, it's standard stuff on FX.

Unfair to the broadcast networks? Absolutely. But the worst possible solution would be to extend the FCC's domain.

Meanwhile, back at "Dirt," a viewer's search for a sympathetic character -- not a simple matter -- leads eventually to Ian Hart as a furtive photographer named Don Konkey, so devoted to editor Spiller that he will hang from trees, risking his life and its limbs, to photograph people who don't want to be photographed -- at least not via foot-long lenses while snuggling in their bedrooms or snorting cocaine in their bubble baths.

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