Dirt cheap

The unintentional brilliance of FX's new show
By SEAN BARTLETT  |  February 1, 2007

You know those pieces of art that are such a mess they're almost perfect? Like Pollock's Blue Poles or Roadhouse? Well there's a new name to add to the list. Dirt, the Courteney Cox vehicle that airs Tuesdays on FX, is — at the very least — the rightful heir to the guilty pleasure throne. At its best, it could be so much more.

The show focuses primarily on Lucy Spiller (Cox), the intrepid editor of Dirt magazine, whose underhanded methods of celebrity journalism have allowed her to climb to top of Hollywood's vast smut heap. Her stable of informants includes a schizophrenic paparazzo named Don (Ian Hart), who has a Fletch-like ability to penetrate even the most secure events in L.A. (a young actress' funeral for example), and an actor named Holt McCoy (Josh Stewart of Third Watch), who dishes on his famous friends in exchange for puff features in the magazine. The critical tension here is derived from the inevitable question of whether or not the ends justify the means, to which the answer, with all the gravitas of an after-school special, is a categorical "no."

Is it fair to reduce Dirt to these terms of a poorly executed morality tale? Probably. But is it unreasonable to suggest that the show could be a success on some level? Maybe not.

Writer/Director Matthew Carnahan has developed a show that so clearly treads in worn out territory (the horrors of celebrity) that its ostensible reflections upon its subject matter are inevitably derivative and never satisfying. Dirt, at its best, ignores attempts at any higher message, and retreats to the safety of its own brand of edgy camp. It's nearly impossible not to delight in such story arcs as professional basketball player Prince Tyreese's (former Laker Rick Fox) desperate attempt to destroy photos depicting his hot-tub romp with a hooker and a strap-on. It's even harder not to smile when Shannyn Sossamon, between shots of hooch and tablets of E, rejects the idea of aborting her unplanned pregnancy by tearfully asserting, "I am so totally Catholic."

But it's this steady diet of shock tactics and Dynasty-esque histrionics that makes the show feel like a celebrity rag set in motion, aligning the style and credibility of its own content with that of trashy tabloids that tempt us at supermarket checkout lines. Even in its most solemn moments, Dirt does not put forth legitimate drama, but an oddly appropriate depiction of the hyperbole Us Weekly subscribers so desperately crave. It’s present in nearly every aspect of the series, from ridiculous plot lines to the vibrancy of its visuals, which, to the show’s credit, can pop like a series of cover shots.

The resulting effect is a meditation on the idea of sensationalist journalism itself – not narratively driven, as one would expect, but formally. And the dramatic shortcomings of its cast of archetypal heartthrobs and ingénues actually serve to further this cause.  With each wooden performance, and every hilariously stilted exchange of dialogue, we are exposed to how hollow and insignificant over-the-top tales of Hollywood elite truly are. These stories and characters are no more fulfilling or thought provoking than those from real life — in fact, they’re less so. That’s always been the principal beef with celebrity news anyway, it’s just never been presented in this way. And in this sense, Dirt does make a point, even if it is hidden beneath the surface of an otherwise lousy production.

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