Dirt: The Complete First Season Review

Filth might be a better title. Trash even. Or Scum. Not Dirt though. Dirt can actually be nourishing. Things can grow in dirt. There’s nothing encouraging or fruitful about what’s shown on the television show Dirt, starring Courteney Cox as a superbitch celebrity tabloid editor with dead daddy issues. Dirt is as unlikely to produce something that’s good for you as the real-life magazines that inspired it. Just like those full colour tabloids, this show is almost completely without worth and analogous to a bloodsucking insect that drains the lifeblood from more powerful organisms. The creators of Dirt have done well to copy their cable peers, both from the show’s home network FX and from pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, but they’ve forgotten to create characters or situations that anyone would care about. For those with ample time on their hands, the show does have a whiff of guilty pleasure watchability, and it’s not as boring as the murder-of-the-week crime shows the broadcast networks continue to trot out. Executive produced by Cox and her husband David Arquette and created by Matthew Carnahan, Dirt concerns the behind the scenes struggles of a top-shelf celebrity smut rag masquerading as Wal-Mart checkout line reading material. Cox plays Lucy Spiller (a too clever name for a character you wouldn’t want to trust with a secret), who begins the show as editor of the venerable and respectable, but flagging Now magazine as well as the more popular celebrity gossip tabloid Drrt. To save her job early on, she insists on merging the two for a worst of both worlds glossy tabloid called DirtNow. Her publisher is a goofy, badly sideburned ladies man named Brent Barrow (Jeffrey Nordling), who has a predilection for younger women and an interesting hobby that the show underexplores. Lucy also has a rising semi-protegee, Willa McPherson (Alexandra Breckenridge), who’s not nearly as innocent as her naive demeanor makes her out to be. Staff members of the magazine are treated like street urchins by their venomous boss, and the show conveniently avoids addressing why exactly anyone puts up with Lucy’s persistently wretched demeanor.
Her only semblance of a friend is talented freelance photographer Don Konkey (Ian Hart, in a performance that’s the show’s most, if not only, redeeming quality), a functional schizophrenic who sees dead people, among others, if he doesn’t take his meds. Lucy and Don went to school together and she remains (mostly) loyal to her star paparazzo, who takes his job as a photojournalist serious enough to only shoot on film and to look for the story instead of just the shot. His life is a constant struggle, always wondering if the people he sees are real or schizophrenic visions, but he greatly values his friendship and business relationship with Lucy. Their interactions are where her complexity begins and ends. Lucy’s entire twisted reasoning is based on the idea that magazines like DirtNow don’t cause celebrities to take drugs, get in car accidents and otherwise ruin their lives. They merely reveal the problems of the famous, who in turn bring these things upon themselves as a result of the lives they lead. Sometimes there’s a devil’s bargain involved where the celebrity pushes into the pages or on the cover of the magazine as a boost to a sagging career. The show illustrates this with regular cast members Holt McLaren (Josh Stewart) and his girlfriend Julia Mallory (Laura Allen). In the pilot episode, Holt is a struggling actor while Julia has a hit sitcom and is headlining her own movie. Some well-placed publicity, a resulting David Fincher movie (the director has a cameo), and a high speed car crash lead to Holt ending up as the star of his own action franchise while Julia hits drug-addled rock bottom. The glossy tabloids that often look like they’re badgering celebrities, the show seems to say, can actually boost their careers if the right quid pro quo game is played.

If that’s the mantra of the series, its surgically altered mouth is Lucy Spiller. The character breathes fire during the day and cries herself to sleep with vibrator in hand at night. She has family problems. She’s sexually frustrated. She has no one but her precious magazine to come home to at night. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? This is a woman whose job consists of destroying lives and then feels righteous indignation when someone has the audacity to photograph her in private and without her knowledge. The play for sympathy by reminding us that the powerful Lucy Spiller is really a lonely, empty woman unable to come to terms with her father’s death 25 years earlier is a ridiculous byproduct of a show painting itself into an unlikeable corner. It’s as if the writers realised they’d made a mistake by crafting such repulsive characters and wanted to have it both ways by creating adversity for Lucy that might make viewers suddenly care. The problem there, though, is that so much of everything on the show is unsavoury and uninspiring and leaves nothing and no one for the audience to empathise with, much less like. The extreme cynicism of Dirt will turn off most viewers and even those heaviest of cynics are unlikely to fall for the fake allure of fake celebrity gossip. If we don’t care about Lindsay and Paris then why would we be interested in Holt and Julia? The show is sometimes more successful when dealing with multi-episode plot arcs, like the murder of a small town high school cheerleader. Paul Reubens perks things up when he guest stars as an alcoholic once respectable journalist who travels upstate with Willa for the story. Other recurring characters include Shannyn Sossamon as a suicide starlet who later manifests as a ghost to Don and former Los Angeles basketball player Rick Fox as a Los Angeles basketball player who somehow fits into a decapitated head drama. There’s even a mini Friends reunion when Jennifer Aniston guests as Lucy’s rival and old friend in the season finale. Other guest stars of interest include Vincent Gallo as a former child star gone psycho, Wayne Brady channeling his Chappelle's Show badass, and Lukas Haas as a young paparazzo who admires Don. Highlights like these break up the unappetising portions of Dirt and allow the show to not take itself too seriously (like it does in the dreadful subplot about Lucy’s stalker). When it realises that it’s an unambitious mess, the series is at least very watchable and not too much of a chore to get through. Similar to the printed gossip tripe found at grocery stores and newsstands across the country, Dirt works only as a sticky and unhealthy diversion from its alternatives. It’s nonetheless easy to get sucked in to the promise of looking at what you know you’re better off avoiding. As far as mean-spirited guilty pleasures go, you could do worse. As far as entertainment, you could do much, much better.

The Discs

All 13 episodes are included on the R1 release of Dirt: The Complete First Season and spread across three dual-layered and one single-layered disc. They're housed in a glossy digipak with two overlapping plastic trays. A pocket with only an advertisement for the second season of Dirt inside and episode titles on the outside sleeve make up the third tier of the digipak. Episodes generally run approximately 45 minutes, but the pilot comes in at just under 55 minutes. Introductions by the character of Don Konkey begin each subsequent episode, but can be skipped by advancing the chapter.Video is presented in original 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer is progressive and, on the whole, good, but not without some minor problems. Detail is generally acceptable, but has a tendency to sometimes look blotchy. I noticed a bit of digital noise, possibly due to an inherently grainy and dark nature of the show at times. This also could be part of the reason sharpness varies, sometimes not looking hardly as crisp even in lighter scenes. Colours look appropriate, but I did notice some troubling pixellation at about the 2:15 mark on episode 13 (entitled "Ita Missa Est"). I can't say whether this is an isolated incident limited to my copy or a more prevalent one.Audio is only available in English and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track presents no problems. The show is mostly dialogue with the occasional generic pop indie song. Levels are strong enough and even throughout, except the brief and annoying opening title theme that's cranked up a little too loud. On the rare occasion that the surround can be noticed, it sounds satisfactory. Most of the noises, however, come from the front speakers and the rear channels are hardly used. Subtitles are available in English only and yellow in colour.

There are several bonus features, non-anamorphic and interlaced, but they're very insubstantial so I'm just going to list them here:"Celebrity Couple Gets Dirty" - (5:13) - Super fluffy look at the show and its origins with interviews from Carnahan, Arquette, Cox, etc. The main thing of interest here is that it was originally to focus on photographer Don Konkey's character, but they decided to instead set the show at a tabloid."Through a Lens, Darkly" - (6:35) - More of the same, this time about Don Konkey and Ian Hart, the actor who portrays him, and the character's schizophrenia. Like with all the other extras, way too many clips and too much emphasis on things that viewers who've seen the series will already know.

"Tabloid Wars" - (6:34) - Brief interviews with consultants who've worked on celebrity magazines and a mention that the interaction seen on the show is modeled after the tabloid culture found abroad more than what's in the U.S.

"Gag Reel" - (1:35) - Actors flubbing lines and laughing. To steal from Woody Allen, this seems totally unnecessary and way too short.

"Deleted Scenes" - (17:58) - Starting with an introduction from creator Matthew Carnahan (26 seconds) and followed by 11 deleted scenes that also have intros from Carnahan. Most of these aren't any worse than what made it on the show, but they represent a few different directions that were decided against. They can be played individually or back-to-back.

"Season Two Preview" - (1:19) - Carnahan talks about some of what's in store for the show's second season. Much of this actually sounds promising and it seems that they may be placing a bigger emphasis on the stronger points (Lucy and Don) while phasing out the weaker ones (Holt and Julia).

"Sneak Peeks" - Theatrical trailers for the films Becoming Jane, Golden Door, and Eagle vs. Shark


Watching Dirt is a nasty, unsatisfying experience that might make you want to start running the bathwater when the credits begin to roll. It's also fairly addictive and improves as the season goes on. If you like celebrity tabloid gossip, you're the target audience here. If you don't, you might be repulsed or, worse, indifferent.

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