We’re not really trying to take anybody down.

— Courteney Cox, AP (8 January 2007)

Dirt starts out looking shiny. In its pilot episode, significantly named tabloid magazine editor Lucy Spiller (Courteney Cox) glides along the edge of some star’s super-duper swimming pool, her hair perfectly black and her dress stunningly red. The lights glint on the water’s surface, and Lucy’s eyes go wide as she imagines celebrities caught in her cover photos: “I’m gay!” screams a headline for a handsome young man. “Hollywood hookup!” for a couple embarked on a one-night-stand. And “Celebulimia” labels a desperately skinny girl wolfing down hors d’oeuvres.

Apparently, this is how you do dirt in Hollywood. Surfaces seem bright and pretty until they’re subjected to the grainy, garish tabloid long-lens shot. And then, all celebrity asses look flabby, all complexions blotchy. It’s a terrible business, this dragging stars off their undeserved pedestals, but someone has to be well paid to do it. Lucy has designer outfits, a swell office, and a phenomenal ride. She’s overtly reviled and, she says, necessary. As an erstwhile victim puts it to her at the poolside party: “Do you have any idea of how many people here would like to see you laying on the ground begging for someone to call 911?” She almost smiles, not quite ruefully, “You know why I’m not afraid?,” she says, looking into her martini. “You and all of your Hollywood friends read my magazines and you secretly love them. And you know every word is true.” Her seeming challenger gives up. “You’re amazing,” he says. She thinks so too.

Yet, Lucy is also bothered. Just after the party scene, a grim smog timelapses over L.A.’s night lights and Lucy appears in bed. The shot is more or less overhead, pushing in as she jolts awake following a dream about a noose slithering around her neck. Got it: she feels guilty. “Don’t you know,” wails the rock-lite soundtrack, “The truth will set you free.”

Lucy comes back to this idea repeatedly, that she’s only printing truth — even if she has to pay to make that truth happen, hiring hookers and troublemakers in order to get the shot that will make the story “true.” It’s not that she’s actually invested in truth, like, say, a journalist. It’s that she understands her legal position. Admonishing her pretty young thing reporters at the office, she notes, “There’s actual reporting involved in what we do.” You can’t make stuff up, exactly, you need proof. “Our readers want to know who that people actually screw up and that they actually sleep with hookers and that they lie” (emphasis on the “actually”). Lucy closes her speech with a threat: “Gossip is what lands you in court. The only real defense we have is the truth, preferably with photos.” The chastised team member gulps and promises to dig deeper into her target’s “struggle with addiction.” A couple of other girlies text one another furiously in split screen, calling Lucy a “bitch.” This is true too, but Lucy isn’t having it. She fires the texter. Ah yes, she’s cold.

It’s not that Dirt is telling you anything you don’t know. But it does have a certain saturated-colors, FXish style (with cameos by famous industry folks like David Fincher) and a carefully measured dose of moral outrage. Lucy certainly doesn’t mean well, but she also appears to be doing her work on Drrt magazine so she can also run another, marginally less bad magazine called Now: here she is able to lift people up, writing profiles that mention industry “rumors” that lead to actual jobs or actual divorces. Yes, she is “amazing.”

But she’s also Courtney Cox, which makes Lucy look, on her surface, complicated. Skilled as Cox may be, it’s not easy to make her hateful. Lucy snarls and makes snide asides, she appears in shadows and sends minions on dreadful assignments. But she’s also vulnerable and she reads books (she impresses one date by knowing Proust wrote about a Madeleine, because that’s not common knowledge and it makes her look extra smart). She’s glad to catch NBA superstar Prince Tyreese (Rick Fox) in a pool with a hooker, she’s also glad to hook a source, in the form of Holt (Josh Stewart), haggard, out-of-work “actor’s actor” (“You’re always great in everything you do,” he’s told, “You’re authentic,” which is not quite the same as the truth).

According to the show’s soapy structure, subplots intertwine with plots: Holt is dating vacuous hot beauty Julia (Laura Allen), who’s starring in a movie called Subliminal Velocity (this is an indication of her character). Holt is no less shallow, but he believes he is. His descent into unshaved, hollow-eyed misery looks good (he looks “authentic” in a LalaLand kind of way and he’s predictably, sensationally horrible to his airheaded girlfriend). Despairing, Holt agrees to dish on his girl’s best friend Kira (Shannyn Sossamon), secretly pregnant by a lout (“I cannot believe I ever threw you a bang,” she cries). Alas, Kira is “so totally Catholic” she can’t find a way out of her predicament except by drugs, a “totally Catholic” response. Lucy doesn’t care that Kira ODs (she’s an addict, end of discussion). She only wants Holt to keep delivering inside dope.

Lucy’s own addictions seem pretty clear. She’s into power and manipulation and doling out favors in exchange for more power. She’s also attentive to her favorite photographer, Don Konkey (Ian Hart), part ruthless, part addicted, and part schizophrenic. He hears voices (a fluttery mix of male and female whispers and commands), he loves his ratty white cat, dying from cancer, and he visits with his doctor to get reupped on his meds. She advises him not to take random cocktails: “You have to respect the disease and respect the treatment,” she intones, his face sweating in delirious, Requiem for a Dreamy wide angle. Shadows of paper-puppets dancing on the wall behind him, he reels off his needs — Zeldox Risperdal Zyprexa and Aripiprazole — and she gives him his scrip. Zealous about his meds, he’s off for another dosing (but not before he terrifies the pharmacist with his bug-eyed wide angling).

Don may be the series’ most fractured and so, most sympathetic character. He has no conscience about his job, hiding in trees and mud to get a million shots with his speedy automatic shutter, swatting at unseen bugs and tugging at his shirt. But he does feel bad about his cat, whose death in the first episode leads to Lucy actually hugging him, like she wants to offer comfort: the close-up of her face indicated this is a new notion, and that she isn’t good at it.

Don is compelling because he’s detailed. He spends a lot of time alone in his apartment, depressed and listening to Hawaiian music; he misperceives rain as blood falling from the sky (a patented FXy touch). When Don is assaulted in a parking lot for being so unclean, he looks up at his abuser and smiles. “It’s okay,” he says, his acceptance and his pardon more unnerving than any protest or self-rationalization.

“Tristan is dead,” he wails about his cat. “My best friend, and we killed him.” Though Lucy notes that he had cancer, Don sees it as payback. The cat spoke to him before he died. And the cat blamed him. “All the stuff we did, all the bad things,” Don whimpers. Yes, it’s bad, they’re bad, the world they inhabit is bad. The question for Dirt, teetering between cynical and obvious, is how this matters.

RATING 5 / 10