We are not living in a subtle age and, as the title would suggest, there is nothing subtle about "Dirty Sexy Money." Not the voice-over, in which narrator-protagonist Nick George (Peter Krause) quickly informs us that money is said to be the root of all evil. Not the family that forms the center of the action -- the Darlings are just that, the toast of New York society, despite the fact that they seem to have been culled from some drama department dissertation: "Crazy Rich People, Acting and Archetype." And certainly not the A-plot -- after his father mysteriously dies, Nick is offered the job that devoured him alive: Darling family lawyer.
But subtlety can be overrated, Paris Hilton notwithstanding, and "Dirty Sexy Money" chooses to wallow in other charms. Which are considerable. Smart, funny and utterly shameless -- as Tripp Darling, Donald Sutherland wears the blinding white hair of Zeus and what looks to be one of Pavarotti's fur coats -- this is a nighttime soap for those of us too snooty to admit we loved "Melrose Place." Edith Wharton, had she written for Defamer.
In fact, with Sutherland, Krause and Jill Clayburgh as Letitia (Letitia!) Darling, the cast is so pedigreed that, if you squint, you can pretend you're watching "Masterpiece Theatre." Except the production values are too high.
Operating under the populist, and popular, belief that too much money will make a person crazy, creator Craig Wright has given us a family right out of a New Yorker cartoon -- the Addams family without the spider-webbed candelabras. Here's Patrick (William Baldwin), the politico with the transgender girlfriend; Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald), the spiteful minister with the temper of a 2-year-old; Karen (Natalie Zea), on her fourth marriage, who still only has eyes for Nick; and the twins: Jeremy (Seth Gabel), who apparently considers "Less Than Zero" a self-help guide, and Juliette (Samaire Armstrong), the talentless thespian who just wants to be loved -- by the paparazzi.
Among them, their needs are bottomless, their expectations limitless, and the only reason Nick takes the job is because Tripp offers $10 million a year to invest in whatever charity he wants. And there's a nice shiny apple on that tree over there he can have too if he wants.
The rich are, of course, a genre in themselves. Pressing our noses against the window/television screen, we shiver in the snow and our Little Match Girl rags, aching for the pageantry, the mouthwatering beauty of too-muchness while secretly longing for comeuppance. If not a revolution that ends with their heads on spikes, then at least proof that they are even more messed up than we are.
"Dirty Sexy" delivers on both counts. Pills are popped, yachts are won in a poker game, racehorses show up at anniversary parties and sex tapes are ransomed with a cool mil gleaned from a secret room full of cash and gold. "All of this belongs to the Darlings?" asks Nick, all wide eyes and leather satchel. "Sí," says the banker. "And there are vaults like this all over the city."
Baroque times call for baroque performances, and everyone at this feast has heaped high their plates. With his secretive smile and slightly mad eyes, Sutherland's Tripp is a Met-perfect portrait of modern landed gentry, using his Corinthian-leather rich voice to turn the smallest phrase -- "a little vineyard we bought in Bordeaux" -- into something so luscious it's almost edible. Clayburgh is still impossibly, and WASPishly, beautiful, and her "Tish" rattles ice cubes, chokes back tears and boozily rallies her children to have a little more spine.
Anchored by the sensible sensitivity of Nick, "Dirty Sexy" goes over the top and back again, as brightly fun and cheesy as a carnival ride. Jeremy slurs, Juliette preens, Brian snarls, Karen vamps and Patrick, God bless him, proves that love comes in many boxes other than the ones usually portrayed on TV.
The set pieces, in which the whole family is assembled, are like something in a Noel Coward play. Or a Charlie Chan movie, for that matter. Everyone hissing and accusing and defending, one expects some servant or other to hit a big gong and announce dinner. It will be interesting to see if Wright can sustain the level of fun: Working with caricature characters is a dangerous game. One narrative flounce too many and the whole thing collapses like a soufflé.
But "Dirty Sexy" is not all fun and games. Nick soon realizes that his father's death may not have been accidental, that someone in the Darling family may be responsible and he is going to "make them pay." An air of mystery might just keep the show from flying beyond the reach of likability, which would be too bad. Because so far it's all too marvelous. Darling.
'Dirty Sexy Money'
When: 10 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)