It's considered poor critical etiquette, for some sniveling reason, to linger on what the piece of entertainment under review might have been—to fault the fundamental approach—so I won't go on and on about how Courteney Cox's Dirt (FX, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) stood a chance of being fun. The show, a fantasy about tabloid magazines, might have been a madcap riff on scandal and compromise, frothy with soap and frothing with bile, if developed by producers with the right sense of humor or, in fact, any discernible sense of humor at all. But Dirt is far too busy cultivating its dour heavyosity to bother with funny business, and we must push away the thought of pleasure and poke at the dish we're served, which is cold, bitter, and bloating, with a gritty aftertaste. Dirt is quick-moving but painfully solemn, somehow constituting a plodding romp. At their very best, the first three episodes play like bad Kubrick.
The antiheroine, an editor named Lucy Spiller (Cox), first appears at a Hollywood party sheathed in a gown of imperially bitchy crimson. An agitated rock song grinds away on the soundtrack as Lucy oozes across a terrace and assembles an imaginary magazine cover just by surveying the scene and deploying a predator's intuition: The male actor ogling male ass is ripe for the outing; the bingeing waif is a bulimia cover line waiting to happen. Returning to her martini, Lucy bumps into a movie mogul, a heavyset gentleman named, with the cumbersome fake-backstaginess of the show, Harvey.
After opening with some chit-chat about his desire to poison her drink, Harvey simultaneously seethes at Lucy and praises her as a gossip savant. She parries by barking out the obvious with requisite smugness: "As much as you all hate to admit it, you need me." And soon we see the lights of all Los Angeles stretching out to the horizon, and then terrible clouds shroud the city, as if a plague is gathering or there's an unhealthy particle-pollution level, and a crimson noose is tightening around Lucy's neck, and she wakes from this dream with a gasp.
Ah, the rich nonsense of Hollywood Gothic! Lucy's got a bad conscience and worse karma, but Don Konkey, her star paparazzo and dirtiest worker, helps her bear the weight. He's her soul mate, the Renfield to her Dracula, and (for the sake of some old-school glamour and Weegee-esque cred) "the last pap to shoot on film." The actor in the role, Ian Hart, has the authentically rodentine air of hardened sleazemongers—the ferrety look that comes with years of distinguished service to Page Six and such—which is a nice touch. The character himself is a schizophrenic, which isn't. It looks like Don is going to spend the life of the series hallucinating visions of Kira Klay, a starlet who committed suicide (in the hot tub, with the cocaine) after he turned her unplanned pregnancy into a national scandal. Kira wafts around in her Laura Palmer pallor, a glum muse and a voice from the cellar at once, forming a trinity with Lucy and Don to symbolize the rotten heart of the gossip business. Here it is, kids, disease and desire, just like back in Comp Lit.
Lucy and Don traffic in sensational celebrity indiscretions. There's a freebasing Christian rocker, a closeted action hero, and an adulterous basketball star (Rick Fox, a former Los Angeles Laker, deploys his innate greasiness to fine effect). There's an actress with a pill problem and sex tape, her duplicitous boyfriend, and a homicidal R&B producer. And what would a show like this be without a hot lesbian drug dealer? If you can follow the show's intricate and frantically spun web of ambition, blackmail, and deceit, you'll notice that none of its threads is especially interesting, and it doesn't help that the actors playing movie stars in this Hollywood Babylon are manifestly lacking in star quality. Dirt requires you to believe that Grant Show, formerly of Melrose Place, could be an A-list actor, despite the fact that he looks an awful lot like Grant Show, formerly of Melrose Place. Further, Lucy has a love life. In the pilot, she emerges from another party to discover a studly young man reading a novel while waiting for the valet to come around with his car. Savvy connoisseurs of trash will already know what the book is:
Studly Young Man (breathtaken): The whole thing happens because the guy dips a cookie in some tea.
Lucy: It's not just any cookie. It's a madeleine.
Interviewed by the New York Times, Matthew Carnahan, who gets the creator credit on Dirt, said that he wanted to make this "a show about the cultural apocalypse" and went on invoke Faust. Meanwhile, in Entertainment Weekly, Cox—a producer as well as the star—told a story about recruiting one real-life paparazzo as a consultant for the show after he trained his lens on her baby daughter at Disneyland. At first, Cox and her husband were going to order the photographer exiled from the happiest place on earth, but they had a change of heart: "I felt bad because it's Anaheim, and he followed us so far so I said, 'Look, you can have one shot, then leave us alone. But I want your card.' " That quote is awesome—the player's trade, "it's Anaheim"—and a clue that Dirt is less interesting as a show about cultural apocalypse than one more blinking indicator of it.