Although I never caught Dirt during its premiere season over on F/X, I do remember quite a bit of phony media buzz over an episode that featured star Courteney Cox masturbating, along with a flurry of press releases concerning the season's final episode, which supposedly showed Cox and former Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston locked in a passionate kiss (it's hardly that). Neither of those two instances of obvious media ballyhoo prompted me to watch, and quite frankly, after hearing about the less-than-stellar ratings, I just assumed the show was canceled after its initial 13-episode run (evidently, it has been renewed, but the current writer's strike may delay the second season launch).
Well, to my surprise, the four-disc, thirteen episode Dirt: The Complete First Season turned out to be a compulsively watchable, terrifically entertaining cable drama - certainly one of the more neglected little gems from the 2007 TV season. As regular readers of my reviews probably know already, newer TV shows usually come up short for me in comparison to vintage, classic series (a recent exception would be the excellent Prison Break), but Dirt snuck up on me from out of nowhere, delivering a strange mix of trendy topicality with a pulpy, full-blooded theatricality that reminds me of Valley of the Dolls on steroids. Even more unexpected, in the midst of Dirt's cable-ready sex scenes and thinly-veiled jabs at real-life celebrities, the oddest of love stories develops, between Cox's complex, layered magazine editor, and her best friend, a highly functioning schizophrenic photographer.
Dirt tells the story of Lucy Spiller (Courteney Cox), a tough-as-nails editor for the tabloid magazine, DirtNow!. Spiller's entire life is consumed by her drive to spur the magazine on (originally, it was two magazines, Dirt and Now!, which Spiller combined to marry the sagging sales of the respectable Now!, to the sleazy, yet profitable Dirt). Nothing is more important to Lucy than the next cover story (a magazine's cover is the make-or-break element for sales) - not her family, not her random, anonymous lovers, not anything. As she repeatedly tells her cowed staff, "We live or die by breaking stories."
To achieve this success, Spiller has gathered together an impressive collection of secrets on the various movers and shakers of Hollywood, kept locked away in a back-room vault office (complete with bank safe doors and bars). Frequently, as leverage, Lucy will "persuade" (i.e.: blackmail) a star as a way of getting even more dirt on a bigger celebrity. When called on her amoral actions, Lucy quite sensibly explains the logic behind her actions: without the tabloids, without the press, the stars would be nothing. They need her just as much as she needs them. And despite the trappings of the scuzzy, salacious tabloid magazine, Lucy sees herself as a journalist. She doesn't print rumor or innuendo; she prints hard, unpleasant (to the subject) truths - and so much the better if the "Wal-Mart mommies" out there want to buy her magazine to pour over those dirty, scandalous truths.
Aiding Lucy in her quest to be the first to break sensationalism as truth is Don Konkey (Ian Hart), a highly functioning schizophrenic and the best paparazzo in the business. Don, at times severely limited in his day-to-day functioning due to his illness, is loathe to take his medication, but Lucy constantly implores him to do so. What on the surface appears to be a beneficial relationship for Lucy based on exploitation (Lucy keeps him sane so she can get the pictures that make her money), reveals itself to be a true, deep, sincere friendship between the two outsiders. Don becomes particularly important to Lucy due to the increasing pressure she's feeling at her job; constantly assailed with the specter of falling sales, Lucy's job security is frequently threatened by Brent Barrow (Jeffrey Nordling), the officious, slimy publisher of DirtNow!.
As well, her personal life - what little she has due to severe emotional problems stemming from her father's suicide when she was 15 - is complicated, at best. Sexually frustrated (she can only climax through masturbation), Lucy has finally found a partner who satisfies her in bed: actor Holt McLaren (Josh Stewart). Unfortunately, their hooking up came about when McLaren, a talented but washed-up "flavor of the month," sold out his own girlfriend, "America's Sweetheart" Julia Mallory (Laura Allen) by telling secrets about Mallory's pregnant best friend (another actor who OD's when the secret is splashed across the tabs). When Holt balks at any more ratting out (after he almost kills Julia in a car wreck when he learns her friend died), Lucy blackmails him with a sex tape she has of Julia with another actor - one that Julia never told Holt about. Naturally, Holt is morally repulsed by Lucy, but that doesn't stop his sexual attraction for her, nor Lucy's for him, especially when she discovers how liberating their sex is together. But too many people have it out for Lucy (a Republican family man action star, who happens to be secretly gay; black gangsters who target her and the magazine when a story is broken about a beheaded hip hop star), and with her emotional life in turmoil, as well, events come together in the unexpected, shocking season finale.
When I first heard about Dirt, I just assumed it would be some sort of expose on the workings of the paparazzi and the tabloids, with plenty of cable-ready sex thrown in for titillation value. But surprisingly, Dirt treads softly on the pap and tabs, correctly pointing out that they are a market-driven industry: if America and the world truly didn't want them to exist, they'd disappear tomorrow. As well, Dirt cleanly delineates the love/hate, incestuous relationship between stars and the media, with both utterly dependent on each other, making the regular, predicable whinings of stars like George Clooney, ridiculously hypocritical. Indeed, the most sympathetic, moral character in Dirt is Don Konkey, the paparazzo.
Cleverly, the series' producer, Matthew Carnahan (a producer on another fun, unsung series, 2001's Thieves), develops Don into a sort of screwy gallant knight, complete with costume (ever-present hat, cardigan and vest sweaters), moral code ("Always get the story, not the shot"), an outdated mode of expression (it's noted he's the only pap left shooting on film) superhuman powers of concentration and devotion to his lady fair (he deliberately allows his finger to be severed, in order to get a shot at a celeb in an ICU ward), and a willingness to step in front of death to protect his love (when the office is invaded by a deranged former child star - Vincent Gallo, believe it or not, in a terrific performance - only Don steps up to protect Lucy), before offering his standard to her (his photos). What's brilliant about the character (aided enormously by the mesmerizing Ian Hart) is that all of these worthy characteristics come in a package that would turn off most people: an odd-looking man suffering from horrible delusions and episodes due to his schizophrenia, wrapped up in a socially unacceptable profession: a celebrity paparazzo.
And with her recognition of those traits, and her deep affection for him and her caring response to his illness, Lucy is given a wonderfully softening layer that goes a long ways towards making her character palatable. Certainly, there's nothing to like about Lucy Spiller (she spills secrets?) on the surface. A hard-nosed pragmatist who plays games with people's lives, Lucy's coldness, although understandable considering her father's bizarre suicide note (he writes that he killed himself "for her") certainly doesn't engender feelings of sympathy towards the beautiful, brittle editor. The series is even careful to turn to the tables on the vulture-like Lucy, giving her a taste of her medicine with her own mysterious, deadly stalker. She's terrified to be on the receiving end of such treatment, with the stalker obviously enjoying taking the kinds of private, candid photos of her that bring down celebrities, fuel her magazine, and fill her pockets with cash.
But just as Hart brings Don to life, so too does Cox, giving Lucy a remarkably layered design that frankly surprised me, considering my only previous experience of Cox was on Friends (where she was, for my money, the funniest character on the show). There's a reserve to Cox here, a standoffishness, that's perfectly in synch with her character. And when she's exploring the sexuality of Lucy (in the series' numerous sex scenes), she again provides an almost disquieting neediness masked by utter indifference to the outcome - if the outcome looks like it might involve her getting hurt. However, it's her scenes with Hart where Cox fully rounds out the complex Lucy, turning on a protective, maternal warmth (and a friendly indulgence and understanding of Don's foibles) that's palpable. These scenes are the heart of Dirt - not the tabloid trash, not the pseudo-rough sex scenes, not the severed head in a jar - and they're quite notable.
But don't get me wrong. I like the trash aspect of Dirt, too (just as Lucy would predict about me - with a condescending smirk). This is pulpy, lurid stuff. The doomed romance of Holt and Julia, while well essayed by young Stewart and Allen, is more useful as a further explanation of Dirt's central credo - don't blame the tabs for pointing out that stars are attention whores who will do anything, to the point of even selling out their own souls, to be famous - rather than as original drama. The real kick comes from the snappy subplots involving black hip hop gangsters (who would murder a singer and keep his head in a jar as a souvenir) and a manipulative, conservative action hero who would do anything to keep his sexuality secret. Those plots, delivered in a punchy, straightforward manner, give Dirt a nice insider, Valley of the Dolls garishness that I found refreshing. Some of Dirt can become too over-the-top, just for the sake of being over-the-top (Holt's sushi-infection - complete with worms - while a clever little touch to suggest the infestation of his soul, is overdone with one-too many vomit scenes). But on the whole, this is mean and nasty melodrama, pure and simple, so it should go for the throat when it can. And when the slam-bang, powerful climax comes at the end of the season, you go with it both on a visceral and emotional level. What makes Dirt different is the rather touching (not to say bizarre) love story between two very odd, closed-off friends, that tempers the more sensationalistic elements of the series.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography .