FX’s enviable reputation with originals is stained by “Dirt,” a Hollywood-centric series about tabloid gossip that yearns to be “Entourage” with edge and settles for being a trashy version of “Just Shoot Me.” Capturing journalism on screen is always a dicey proposition, and despite Courteney Cox’s marquee value as star-exec producer — the fourth “Friends” alum to mount a TV return — the show falls thuddingly flat, feeling tired, gratuitous in its dirty doings and a trifle narcissistic, what with Cox and husband David Arquette’s involvement loosely echoing the showbiz couple prominently featured in the serialized story.
At the show’s center is Cox as Lucy Spiller, the take-no-prisoners editor of Dirt and Now, two magazines specializing in celebrity bilge, though one is more reputable and thus less profitable. Her right-hand man is a “functional schizophrenic” named Don (Ian Hart), an extremely resourceful paparazzo at such unsavory tasks as photographing famous corpses but who hears voices and hallucinates when he strays off his meds.
Lucy makes a splashy entrance, sauntering through a swanky party where she zeroes in on each attendee as a potential cover headline, from “I’m Gay!” to “Celebulimia?” In not-quite-name-dropping fashion (though director David Fincher does play himself in a cameo), she encounters a producer named Harvey (not to be confused with the star named Julia) to whom she snaps, “As much as you hate to admit it, you need me.”
Although Lucy’s staff is young and eager, three episodes in, none but Don register, and he’s one of the most bizarre, off-putting characters in recent memory, completely out of step with the rest of the show. Other continuing story threads include a talented actor (Josh Stewart) whose girlfriend Julia (Laura Allen) is the much more famous star of a popular sitcom (sound familiar? It half should), prompting him to trade tabloid dirt for positive publicity; and an NBA star (former Laker Rick Fox) whose family-man image will suffer if those hot-tub sex photos ever surface.
Hollywood’s hype machine might indeed need Lucy Spiller types, but whether viewers need this kind of nonsense is another matter. “Dirt’s” most glaring flaw is that the series can’t seem to decide where its sympathies lie. It’s certainly hard to root for Lucy, who blackmails celebs and abuses her minions, but she’s also fighting off budget pressures from the mag’s sneering cowboy owner (guest star Timothy Bottoms) and being undermined by its ruthless publisher (Jeffrey Nordling).
Under series creator Matthew Carnahan — a playwright and filmmaker who’s been on the tabloid receiving end, as well as Helen Hunt’s significant other — the whole enterprise proves painfully self-conscious, from an actress referring to a tryst as an “indie arthouse loser” to an uncomfortable, almost embarrassing scene in which Lucy relieves her tensions with a vibrator. Too often, such moments feel like obligatory stabs at “Nip/Tuck’s” basic-cable-pushing standards added strictly “because we can” as opposed to being organic to the show.
Without nitpicking, it’s also surprising that agents and publicists play such a muted role in this world of tabloid gossip, removing layers that help insulate the rich and famous from the prying and insolent.
In this Paris and Nicole age, the show’s subject matter appears timely from afar, but much like the glitzy premiere for a bad movie, the show itself is all flash and no substance — too mundane to even qualify as a guilty pleasure. Reading a little trash now and then can be fun, but “Dirt” isn’t merely trashy; it’s just plain disposable.