The Real Dirt And We Have It
We’ve now watched eight of the 10 episodes of FX’s “Dirt.” Having worked extensively in this arena, we’d like to set the record straight for viewers (although we don’t know exactly who you are yet, since no one we know outside of our work has actually seen the show).
Dirt is Courteney Cox’s slickly sleazy FX series set in the world of high-stakes, big-money tabloid magazines. Cox plays icy Lucy Spiller, the magazine’s ME. She employs her long-time (and perhaps only) friend and resident schizophrenic Don (played by the talented Brit, Ian Hart). Don’s a relentless paparazzi photographer, whose loyalty to Lucy, certainly as proven in recent episodes, is unwavering. Don’s wacky. He loves cats, imagines they talk to him, hears voices, sees alter-egos, is a wealth of detailed trivia.
Dirt is very much in the tradition of FX’s popular, if bleak, Nip/Tuck. A viewer is hard-pressed to find anyone genuinely compassionate, or even, really likeable. These are not, in any kind of normal circumstances, people you’d want to know, let alone turn your back on.
Luckily for those of us glass-half-full types, you don’t often have to run into real-life characters with the gloss of couture slime with the proverbial “tragic” pasts. But they’re prevalent in Dirt, just as they are in Nip/Tuck.
What is most curious about the series is that Cox, who has battled paparrazi and the tabloids – as has her BFF, Jennifer Aniston – for more than a decade, chose this arena. Of course, her agenda to damn them is constantly clear. Yet she also wants to create a fictional, hard-boiled universe that’s compelling enough to sell ad time. She succeeds in moments, but not often. The greatest feat is by far the casting; the acting is, for the most part, excellent. Mariette Hartley is great as her self absorbed mother, Paul Ruebens always a welcome face.
She’s recently been linked (denied, of course) to her co-star Josh Stewart, who plays down-on-his luck Holt (now there's a soap opera name, if we've ever heard one), an actor whose career Lucy revives. Stewart has a perennially sullen, pained look and looks a good deal like Sean Penn crossed with the late Glenn Quinn. He’s sinewy, but then, so is Cox (try not be distracted by the Botox), and nearly everyone else in Dirt.
Certainly the original intent is expose the nasty, pay-to-play tabloid world , but for those who have dabbled on the fringes of this universe (Bauer’s rag “In Touch” and the more revered, but ultimately tabloid-y, People Magazine), this is far from a realistic portrayal.
The Dirt offices alone – much like the Ugly Betty “Mode” magazine ones – look a good deal more like CAA than Time Inc.’s People. We use People as an example because it is the world’s biggest weekly, and considered by PR peeps to be the go-to venue to “break” stories (translated, this means they often give People the first shot at wedding/baby/engagement/rehab/coming-out stories that grace the three-decades-plus old magazine’s covers.
This week’s People cover, Patrick Dempsey and his fresh twin babies, is a perfect example --never mind that on the inside pages, his first child can barely contain her needy brattiness in the glowing photos, which promote the famously-difficult, albeit now hot, actor and his sleeping blond babes. His rep couldn’t have asked for a better press release. See? He’s so much nicer and sweeter than the nasty homophone he works with, Isaiah Washington.)
Anyway, the point is, despite the fact that the West Los Angeles’ office of People Magazine (in the same building as Time Inc’s faltering Entertainment Weekly and celebity-wedding-photo-must-appear-in In Style) is in a nice high-rise on Wilshire Blvd. , it is by no means the plasma-filled super-tech facility that Dirt is.
Paul Ruebens (yay, we love him) plays a seasoned once-legit reporter who easily tosses $20K in cash to a small-town coroner to get the first-look exclusive-to-media look at the autopsy report of a dead cheerleader (who Lucy is making into a celebrity by digging for you got it, dirt).
We’ve heard of colleagues slipping bartenders $20 tips for a glass of water to find out if the celebutante of the moment had been in the night before, but never of coin of such ridiculous proportions.
Even tabloids crashing weddings (and we’re not saying which rag, so don’t get your panties in a bunch) may hand over as much as $1,000 in cash to their most tenacious reporters to slip some green to a bell hop or server, but if they send more than one reporter on location, that’s a very big deal.
Dirt featured an episode (that same episode about dead cheerleader, who’s revealed to be pregnant with her middle-aged minister’s baby-- oh yeah, and same said minister was also “putting his love” – their quote, not ours -- into his own daughter) where Lucy sends a van (a van!) of staffers to descend upon the small town to interview anyone they can get their hands on.
To wit, People Magazine (along with the NY Daily News and the other bevy of media who hawked the story) had one reporter at a time covering the Laci Petersen case, which they milked until that teat was empty. In addition to several covers that story generated for People, two of the reporters who were involved in the coverage rotation recently penned the curiously uninteresting tale of not all, but several of the cases’ jurors. When we say recent, we do mean this year. And yes, Scott Petersen (Laci’s husband) was sentenced to death March 15, 2005, a good two years ago. Way to be topical!
So, as Time Inc. shuts down its bureaus (Time Magazine, the most illustrious of news mags, once the uber source, doesn’t even have offices in Los Angeles – the remaining L.A. staffers work from home), Dirt portrays a glistening massive, interior-design showcases filled-to-the brim with eager attentive staffers. Realistically, these reporters would work on laptops that they can drag with them to stalk, but the neat row of Dirts' flat-screened desktops is so much more impressive (at least that’s what the set designers apparently thought).
Bauer Publishing puts out Life & Style, the trashy In Touch, as well as teen mags (including J14 and Twist), the point-of-purchase women’s mags Women’s World, First for Women and a couple of weekly soap digests. That’s a rather impressive empire for the European company, founded in 1875. They are Europe’s largest privately owned publisher, publishing 120 magazines worldwide.
We use Bauer as an example because the office space hovel that houses the West Coast bureau of In Touch (Life & Style staffers work from home) makes Adam Glasser/Seymore Butts and his San Fernando Valley adult-industry offices (seen prominently in the Showtime’s “Family Business”), look positively glamorous.
At In Touch L.A., there's an office for the bureau chief (who came from American Media's Star Magazine) that is smaller than the average elementary school janitor’s closet. His door opens to an “open” space with several desks – all measuring about 300 ft. Think of a quickly put-up telemarketing facility and you have the In Touch L.A. bureau where the entire L.A. staff of about four people make phone calls from the dingy office complex on Ocean Park Blvd. in Santa Monica. There isn’t a single TV (or wasn’t a couple of years ago), let alone enough plasma screens to mime Circuit City, a la Dirt.
Are we being tetchy? The point is, there is an entirely fantasy universe portrayed in Dirt, one in which pseudo celebs come to the offices of the mag’s ME and “pitch” salacious stories about themselves for the mag to manipulate and run. Reality stars Adrienne Curry and Christopher Knight portray themselves, pitching a story to Lucy in her office, in which former wrestler Chyna (a real-life pal) joins their love nest.
The only experience we ever had with the celeb coming to the office was when then-Buffy co-star Juliet Landau came to Time Inc/People and tried to prove via an obviously doctored drivers license that she was some several years younger than she actually was. To explain, Landau happens to be the daughter of actors, Barbara Bain and Oscar-winner Martin Landau, who were working and popular when she was born (1965), thus her birth was actually documented in the trades and magazines.
In our experience, little of Dirt Now’s process actually happens. It may be the world that Cox imagines, the place where they constantly speculate on her marriage to David Arquette, her state or non-state of pregnancy, and where her friendship with Jennifer Aniston is carefully chronicled, as if there is a diarist in the room.
It’s funny that Cox’s Lucy is always encouraging her reporters to back up their sources, even though they are always going for the most lurid of reveals (ie, happy family man actor is actually gay and Lucy’s pap’s shoot him, Speedo-clad, in a tender embrace with a lover, who happens to be Lucy’s interior designer brother). Never mind that Lucy is actually creating these scenarios (we imagine this is the part that Cox likes best; she’ll show them, they make up stuff!)
It’s not easy to watch either. Like Nip/Tuck it’s relentlessly and often unnecessarily graphic.
There’s plenty of the gross, both literal and figurative, including charred faces (virginal pop star has Richard Pryor-like encounter with explosive crack-pipe), and the truly nauseating (Stewart’s Holt spews, not once, but twice, live worms and the camera nearly lovingly lingers on the rust-colored chunky vomit, ladened with wiggling worms).
Lucy’s kind-of boss, Brent, engages in a sex-only romp with an ambitious junior reporter – which seems a plot-line ideal for the series, but when the three-inch metal tube she’s forced him to keep up his pooper shooter falls out, clanging, during an office hostage situation, it’s cringingly disgusting, and maybe just too forced.
We get it, they’re nasty.
Technically, it’s slick. The cinematography portrays a daytime Los Angeles that’s so bright it needs to be viewed through shades or squinted eyes. El Lay at night is glossy and flashy and scary. There’s always something lurking in the night.
There’s no irony in the fact that Cox, recently stalked at Disneyland by photogs, dismisses all tabloids as Dirt. She called her show that. But she wants to have her cake and eat it, too. With frosting (which reminds us of the scene in which Don’s new girlfriend brings him a birthday cake, pulls off her panties and sits on it).
In summation, no matter how wealthy the media company that owns you, there isn't weekly magazine with offices like Dirt; yes, there may be some bribes, but the huge wads of cash (thrown at minor sources, even) is ridiculous; no matter how D-level a celeb is, they’re not going to walk into the ME’s office and pitch a planted story; Don would never always be the only photog on a stakeout and a mag isn’t going to rent major construction equipment for him to perch, in faux uniform, blocking a street, in for a fishing expedition (meaning, a situation where a celeb “might” be); even the biggest weekly celebrity magazine doesn’t have so massive a staff that it can send six reporters on an ME designed on-location story; no editor with her level or power, based on Los Angeles, lives like Lucy, or has her wardrobe. They just wish they did.