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.
Despite the sleaziness of his trade, Konkey is an endearing and highly colorful creature, a schizophrenic who must be heavily medicated to prevent such hallucinations as drops of rain turning to blood as they fall, or the word "okay" appearing in the air after he utters it, then turning into a worm and crawling away. Assigned to photograph a dead actress just before she is cremated, Konkey imagines her literally embraced by flames, and that is but the beginning of what is arguably TV's weirdest romance ever.
Already mourning a cat lost to cancer, Konkey in effect takes the dead actress home with him -- or at least his imaginary image of her. His vulnerability, hidden from the world by a brash and abusive manner (at a premiere, he loudly recites one actor's last seven flops as the man walks by on the red carpet), makes him a kind of centrifugal center for the series.
"Dirt" leaps out of the starting gate with a party scene in the best tradition of tawdry affairs. Spiller looks at the guests and imagines how they'd look on the cover of her magazine. A fat man named Harvey complains that a divorce "cost me two of my three houses; in Hollywood, that's practically homeless."
Unless your critic's DVD player deceived him, the premiere runs 54 minutes, about 10 longer than the usual one-hour drama minus commercials. Ads for the show say the sole sponsor, at least on opening night, has reduced the amount of advertising time, a savvy gambit that more networks and sponsors might consider.
In the third episode, Spiller declares, uncharacteristically, "I believe in the truth above all else." She sounds more like herself late in the premiere when she tells a staffer, "You know what we love here at Dirt and Now? Homemade porn." It's a pity that Cox doesn't give the character a few shadings and subtleties that might make us root for her, but except when she's facing the mercilessly mercenary owner, she's hardly the kind of character in which to make an emotional investment.
"Dirt" is no celebration of the human spirit, that's for sure. And there's good reason to question how many of these cruel, cynical shows -- some but hardly all of them on FX -- TV viewers can weather. But considered independently, as an artfully smirking piece of work, "Dirt" is both nasty and tasty -- a very guilty pleasure perhaps best spoken of in dark alleys. Or watched through a keyhole.
Dirt (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on FX.