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TELEVISION REVIEW

More titillation than examination

January 02, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Dirt," which premieres tonight on FX, is a new series about tabloid celebrity journalism set in the Sodom and/or Gomorrah that is Hollywood. There's no question that the milieu, which reflects not only our pop-cultural preoccupations but our compulsion to devour what we deplore, is a rich subject, ripe for satire or melodrama. But instead of examining the moralizing titillation that fuels the gossip press, "Dirt" just follows its lead: The show takes basic-cable porn about as far as you can imagine, and there are drugs and deception and other displays of human weakness that we somehow account more awful and interesting when magnified by stardom.

It does not help that executive producer Courteney Cox has miscast herself in a lead role that plays to none of her demonstrated strengths or sparkle. As Lucy Spiller, editor in chief of Dirt magazine -- the character bears a certain professional resemblance to Bonnie Fuller, commander in chief of the Star and the National Enquirer and notoriously a tough boss, to say it nicely -- she seems just grimly determined and never quite credible. In fact, "grimly determined and never quite credible" pretty well describes the show.

Alongside the transient scoops and scandals each week is a long-arc story line involving a troubled "good actor" (Josh Stewart) who is so desperate to get back on the A-list that he essentially sells his soul to Spiller, signing on as an informant in return for good press.

"I'm an actor -- that's all I ever wanted to do," he tells her ruefully, having already precipitated the overdose of one actress and the career slide of his bigger-star girlfriend (Laura Allen).

"No, you wanted to be famous -- there's a big difference," says Lucy from atop the high horse she rides pretty much the whole time, in spite of the fact that she uses blackmail, bribery and entrapment to get the stories she wants. She looks down not only upon the people her magazine writes about, but also the people who buy it ("the Wal-Mart mommies") and the people who make it, browbeating staffers who won't go for blood. "Is this too hard-core for you Columbia J-school grads? This isn't Tiger Beat."

Which isn't to say that this doesn't reflect a reality of contemporary publishing -- the war of Giving People What They Want to Know versus Giving Them What They Ought to Know -- as does the top-down pressure for Spiller to cut costs. The mere fact that she's battling the suits is supposed to lend her substance -- that she might be expending this energy on an enterprise that is fundamentally insignificant is never broached -- as is, for instance, the fact that she knows something about Proust. But Lucy's moral authority is more tenuous than the show is ready to admit. A series like "The Sopranos" or "Deadwood" can involve you in its parallel moral universe to a degree to which you need to check your own compass every so often. Here, you merely get a bunch of people who think they're right, and none of them very convincing.

We do see that Lucy is lonely at the top. Her only friends are her kid brother (Will McCormack) and her chief photographer Don Konkey (Ian Hart), a name one letter away from being an anagram of "Donkey Kong." Konkey is called "the last pap to shoot on film," which is clearly meant to indicate a kind of integrity, as do the facts that he listens to Hawaiian music on vinyl, loves his cat and -- given the sort of money actually paid for the pictures he routinely delivers -- lives well below his means. He is also a "functional schizophrenic," a malady that makes his role more a study in pathology than in paparazzi, but allows him to date a dead starlet he had previously photographed.

Director David Fincher makes a cameo appearance in the first episode, but for the most part the Hollywood atmosphere depends on random name-dropping ("Altman film," "Mr. Clooney") and what might be called "celebrity sorta-likes." (Ex-Laker Rick Fox, who was married to Vanessa Williams until the Enquirer published pictures of him getting a little too cozy with another woman, does come weirdly close to playing himself.)

As Young Hollywood's drug dealer of choice, Carly Pope (from "Popular") makes a relaxed good impression, as does Alex Breckenridge as a budding Lois Lane. Mariette Hartley will eventually arrive to play Lucy's mother, which is encouraging -- Lucy needs some kind of context -- as is a coming appearance by Paul Reubens, who has had his own history with the tabloids, and is always worth watching.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

*

'Dirt'

Where: FX

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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