FX pours plenty into ‘Dirt’

Drama is network's first with a female lead

FX has a lot riding on “Dirt,” the cabler’s dark drama starring Courteney Cox as the powerful editor of two celebrity tabloids.

“Dirt” is the third high-profile drama to launch in the past two years under FX topper John Landgraf and programming head Nick Grad. Pair’s previous efforts — “Over There,” a take on the war in Iraq from Steven Bochco, and “Thief,” a limited series involving an elaborate heist starring Andre Braugher — fizzled after poor ratings.

Drama is also the network’s first drama anchored by a woman. Cabler tends to appeal more to men, with hits “The Shield” and Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me,” but expects “Dirt” to capitalize off equally slick hit “Nip/Tuck,” whose aud is roughly half female.

For Cox, the project is her first at-bat as an exec producer — through her husband David Arquette and her shingle Coquette — and her first lead role since “Friends.”

Unlike lovable neurotic Monica Geller, “Dirt’s” ruthless reporter Lucy Spiller has Cox chasing scandal by any means. Spiller has one-night stands, pleasures herself on-camera and sends schizophrenic but trustworthy photographer Don (played by Ian Hart) to capture all kinds of fornicating fun.

If Cox is looking to distance herself from her old image, FX, known for its edgy shows, is the perfect fit.

Adding to the pressure: Early buzz hasn’t been all that great on “Dirt,” which arrives just months after a tepid reaction from auds to showbiz yarns “Studio 60” and “30 Rock.”

And while “Entourage,” returning to HBO in April, has benefited from its self-deprecating characters and inside-baseball references and cameos, “Dirt” plays it serious and in a sandbox of faux celebs.

“I look at ‘Dirt’ as a Hollywood Faustian fable … about how we’re all complicit in the buying and selling of one another’s souls,” creator Matthew Carnahan says.

Scribe acknowledges he had reservations when Cox approached him about trying to write a drama about the world of paparazzi and tabloid journalism.

“I couldn’t figure out how to crack the paparazzi subject … without wanting to explode it into a larger context of social apocalypse,” he says.

As it happens, Carnahan was already at work researching a passion project that would have centered on a schizophrenic character and the world as he knew it.

Somehow, he says, the two ideas collided.

“Don, who lives in a world of hallucination, sort of manifests the mania we’ve reached in celebrity culture. It was the perfect storm to me,” Carnahan says.

Given its down-and-dirty portrayal of celebrity, “Dirt” isn’t likely to benefit from the same Hollywood crowd that populates “Entourage” (A-listers including Scarlett Johanssen and James Cameron) but it won’t be celeb-free either.

Episodes will follow a ripped-from-the-headlines format with thinly veiled characterizations of contemporary tabloid fixtures.

FX executives expect that familiarity, along with Cox’s star power, will make “Dirt” one of its more commercial franchises.

“These archetypes that the show uses are people who the audiences will know in one way or another,” Grad says. “And I think there is something incredibly satisfying about filling in the blanks for yourself.”

And no one seems to be fazed about the timing, following up “Studio 60” and “30 Rock,” not to mention “The Comeback” and “Fat Actress.”

“Obviously, we believe this show has great characters and great writing. But also, there is something in the zeitgeist right now with tabloid culture. People are fascinated by it,” Grad says, noting the phenomenon of blogs like TMZ.com.

“Those other shows in some way celebrate Hollywood. ‘Dirt’ is very counter to that.”

The stakes are high, but the good news for FX is its 2007 lineup includes the return of “The Shield” and the Eddie Izzard/Minnie Driver grifters saga “The Riches.”

FX has also managed to lure Glenn Close, who landed an Emmy nod for her season-long stint on “The Shield,” to a legal thriller from “The Sopranos” scribe Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler.

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