Would Britney Spears have turned into such a mentally unstable, drug-abusing, overweight, neglectful mess if she weren't hounded by photographers everywhere she goes? Yeah, probably. But being forced to drive through a wall of aggressive paparazzi at every stop sign certainly doesn't help matters.
There have been gossip magazines and celebrity photographers since A Trip to the Moon captivated audiences, but it seems like they've never been so bold and invasive. It was only a matter of time before someone made a television series about this side of the business, and Dirt – which airs on FX in the United States and Bravo! in Canada – is a flawed but interesting look at this fascinatingly sleazy world. The first season is now available on DVD, with only a few special features (three short making-of featurettes, a blooper reel, and several deleted scenes).
Courtney Cox Arquette, who produces the series with husband David Arquette, stars as Lucy Spiller (real subtle), editor of not one but two celebrity magazines. The venerable Now is struggling to hold its audience, while the racy Drrt is popular but too lowbrow to attract advertisers. (Think People and Star, respectively, and you'll get the idea.) Spiller merges the magazines, and with only occasional pangs of conscience, uses blackmail, bribery, and trickery to break stories about celebrities' drug abuse, pregnancies, and other important stuff.
One of Spiller's major sources is Holt McLaren, a talented actor who makes a Faustian bargain to provide information in exchange for favorable coverage in DrrtNow. But her secret weapon is Don Konkey (Ian Hart), a paparazzo who regularly obtains remarkable shots, despite suffering from schizophrenia and being simultaneously tormented and tantalized by the late actress whose corpse he photographed. I won't tell you what he does to get a crucial photo in episode three, but it has to be seen to be believed.
Many of the scenes in Dirt are shown from Konkey's perspective – when he visits a pharmacy in the pilot episode, for example, the models on boxes of hair coloring begin speaking to him simultaneously – and the result is one of the more visually striking shows on television. (It's startling to hear Hart, whose character is a mush-mouthed American, speak with a pronounced Scouse accent in the DVD special features.)
Konkey is by far the most interesting and likable character on Dirt, though making him the focus of the show might have been overwhelming. Courtney Cox Arquette, unfortunately, seems miscast as Lucy Spiller – after years of playing Alex Keaton's sweet girlfriend on Family Ties and the lovable but neurotic Monica on Friends, it's hard to buy her playing a driven, tough, ruthless magazine editor. You can't shake the feeling that she's trying too hard. The show's main problem, however, is that it's overstuffed with characters – mostly celebrities with something to hide – and plotlines that can be difficult to keep straight.
Still, I'll take a show that tries to do too much over a show that tries to get away with as little as possible, and Dirt is definitely worth a look. Its portrayal of celebrity journalism is extremely dark and cynical – and that's probably the portrayal celebrity journalism deserves.