Screen Savors: As uncommon as 'Dirt'

A new series, Dirt, got off to an uneven start, although an old one, Big Love, which is returning in reruns before its new season, is worth watching.

A new series, Dirt, got off to an uneven start, although an old one, Big Love, which is returning in reruns before its new season, is worth watching. Dirt, which debuted last week, stars Courteney Cox (Monica from Friends) as the Los Angeles-based editor of two gossipy tabloids, Dirt and Now. It's set in the same milieu as Entourage, but is much darker and, at least based on one episode, doesn't work nearly as well. That's because the characters don't seem as real as they do on Entourage, where everyone is a fully recognizable human being, whether or not you like them. Where Entourage is sometimes a bit aimless, the heavily plotted Dirt is calculated to make obvious points about the emptiness of celebrity worship, and how fame destroys souls. Cox is believably cold-blooded (and unbelievably gorgeous) as Lucy Spiller, a woman so angry and tough she stuns a lover with a cattle prod when he doesn't leave her apartment fast enough. You have to give Cox credit: Unlike most pretty actresses, she seems to relish playing unlikable characters (remember the bitchy reporter, Gale Weathers, she played in the Scream movies?). Although she reminds her young staff that "the people we're going after aren't dumb; we have to be smarter and quicker," the celebrity targets the show presents actually are dumb. It's hard to care about the glossy blonde star and her more serious but less successful flame, and even harder to feel anything when a character we've seen for only a few minutes overdoses. Realism in television is something of an oxymoron, but since I've worked at the New York Post - a tabloid that features a fair amount of gossip along with its news - and have friends who have written for the supermarket tabloids, I feel qualified to comment on the authenticity (and lack of it) in Dirt. The gorgeous, roomy, beautifully decorated office - all wrong. No one invests much in gossip journalism, so the offices tend to be shabby at best. But the glee that the staff displays when they get hold of a good story is real, as is the utter lack of compassion for those skewered in the paper's pages. The most compelling element of the show is the character of Don (Ian Hart, a British actor with a very distinguished resumé), a paparazzi photographer who struggles with a "manageable form of schizophrenia." It's rare to see a remotely realistic portrayal of schizophrenia, and this one shows how harrowing the illness can be. But more than that, it reveals that the paparazzi shutterbugs are often (I might say invariably) lonely, marginal types. Because of this character, I'll give Dirt another chance next week, when it airs on YES Stars 1 on Sunday at 10 p.m. MOVING ON to Big Love, I don't have the faintest idea about the realism of this story about an upscale, polygamous family in a Salt Lake City suburb that has broken away from the traditional Mormon Church, and I don't care. Like The Sopranos, it uses the premise and insular setting as an opportunity to examine dysfunctional families. Bill (Bill Paxton), owns a chain of Home Depot-like stores. He is a self-made man who rejected the corrupt rural polygamous community in which he grew up, but later (after his first wife, Barb, became infertile) decided to live the principle, or practice polygamy. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), reluctantly agreed and he took as a second wife, Niki (Chloe Sevigny), the secretly shopaholic daughter of Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), Prophet of the community where Bill grew up. Roman divides his time between his 10 or so wives (the youngest is 14) and scamming any money he can. Bill's third wife is the youngest, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a lost, non-Mormon young woman who is enjoying the first stable family life she's ever had. Also in the picture are Bill's mean-spirited father (Bruce Dern), who is estranged from his angry mother (Grace Zabriskie). The show's greatest value is as a showcase for two great film actors who haven't worked enough in recent years - Stanton (who oozes evil with every gesture) and Dern, as well as the brilliant Zabriskie and the very funny Mary Kay Place (she was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the Seventies), who plays Roman's oldest wife. But the younger actors give them a run for their money, and the unlikely show has so many engaging twists and emotionally real moments, it will hook you. Reruns begin in a week on YES Stars 1, and the new season is coming soon.