Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Dirt" under my fingernails

F/X has carved out Tuesday nights at 10:00 as the debut destination for its dramatic series, sometimes with success - The Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck - sometimes not - Thief, Over There. I enjoy the former, except Nip/Tuck of late, enough that I am willing to give Dirt a few more chances. I skipped most of the pilot last week, but caught up on the replays and tuned in again last night to see where we were headed.

Very simple premise. Courteney Cox plays Lucy Spiller, the Type-A editor of two celebrity gossip ragmags - one lowbrow and the other lower brow. I can see why the pitch meeting for this one was an absolute home run (I think I scrambled a metaphor there, but stay with me). We are so fascinated by celebrity culture and gossip in this country that what could be more interesting than a show dramatizing that process? Sounds great, right?

The trick here is make fiction stranger than truth and more interesting, otherwise viewers will just flip over to Entertainment Tonight and the E! True Hollywood Story. And, for me anyway, it has to be funny, at least a few times an hour. This is why The Shield and Rescue Me work, because if there were no humor, you'd just get dragged into the amoral morass, and how much of that can you take every week?

So, is Dirt getting it done? Not yet. I'm not sure Cox can carry the show (ironically, last night we learned that Spiller's job is in jeopardy). She's got the right, ADHD, barracuda approach that we all suspect this character has to have, but she still hasn't quite shaken the cheery neuroticism of Monica Geller. Getting the magazine published still has a little too much "let's put on a show" vibe. And she always looks a little too good on camera. Her character has the requisite personal shortcomings, but the director needs to let her look ugly as well. The good news is that she seems to have a drinking problem, so we can only hope that there's a major bender in her future, with substantial plot-altering consequences.

I'm equally conflicted about Ian Hart as the "functioning schizophrenic" paparazzo, Don Konkey, the Mickey Rooney to Cox's Judy Garland. If the writers haven't given Cox's character enough flaws, they have overcompensated with Hart's. This guy has a shrine to a his dead cat, thinks that it's raining blood, and is haunted by the corpse of a dead actress. Oh, and even though he hears voices, he's also a Rainman-type savant when it comes to movie trivia and sports statistics. This should do wonders for the image of treatable mental illness.

Outside of these codependent business partners, we have an array of characters looking to grab a little camera time and audience interest. Josh Stewart plays Holt McLaren, a Sean Penn type whose talent hasn't always overcome his nonmatinee idol looks and is overshadowed by his beautiful but clueless starlet girlfriend. After some initial exposition, McLaren sets the plot in motion by making a Faustian deal with Spiller that may or may not have caused a friend, Konkey's corpse buddy, to kill herself. Jeffrey Nordling is quite convincing as a Spiller's scheming boss who leers at a young staffer named, get this, Willa. Rick Fox stretches his chops to play an NBA superstar set up for something by Spiller and Konkey. If those last two sentences sound gratuitous, well, exactly.

Are you getting all this? Of course you are, because this is what it takes to follow 21st century dramatic television. The plot twists and turns until you have to go to a message board to sort it out with fellow devotees. You find a character to like and then he/she does something morally offensive but defensible or at least understandable, and now you have to stay tuned to see which way the character goes. I'll do so grudgingly, but not if there is something better on, which seems like a pretty good possibility.

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