Bonnie Fuller, Your Conscience Is Calling

'Us' against them

Dirt
Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m.
FX

The Surreal Life Fame Games
Sundays at 8:00 p.m.
VH1

Does anyone smell trout and gunpowder? After the catastrophic premiere of her new tabloid drama Dirt, Courteney Cox is the proverbial fish in a barrel being blasted a new gill by TV critics from Manhattan to Mount Shasta. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the latest issue of the Free-Range Farmers' Gazette bumped its feature on yak butter to rank on poor Courteney for a few column inches. Within minutes of its unholy genesis, Dirt was so universally reviled, so unanimously shat-upon, that it may have actually reconciled foes and healed marriages. Even the president of FX (Dirt's disgraced home) felt compelled to let the Television Critics Association know that the show—in his opinion—will improve midseason.

Maybe everyone's overreacting. I watched Dirt (occasionally through fanned fingers), and I honestly didn't think it was quite as revolting as the ink would have you believe. First of all, it's fun seeing Cox play vampy editrix Lucy Spiller after her sexless decade on Friends. It's kind of like when Leonardo DiCaprio did The Basketball Diaries and everyone was all, "Hey, Luke from Growing Pains is dancing with Mr. Brownstone!" These days, Monica's looking hard, mean, and unexpectedly hot.

Secondly, Ian Hart deserves the lonely praise he's received for his portrayal of Don Konkey, the schizophrenic paparazzo. When Don is onscreen—often hallucinating a cinematic rain of blood, random zombies, or a conversation with his dead cat—it feels like we're watching a different show. A good one. In fact, if Don Konkey were the main character, FX might have a critical hit. (As it is, they've got a ratings hit. People might not like Dirt, but they're watching it in droves. Admittedly, subsequent episodes have shown slight quality improvements.)

It's hard to tell what Dirt's message is, or should be. As a celebrity, Cox has been the subject of stealth photography for years, and this experience clearly informs the show in some fashion (Cox is executive producer). Indeed, the print rumor mill is responsible for an actress's suicide in the very first episode—a scabrous indictment of the gossip industry if ever there was one.

That doesn't quite resolve the question of whether we're supposed to cheer the tabloid scum or take delight in their punishment. When guilt-stricken Lucy cries herself to sleep, are we expected to feel sympathetic, or is this just one of Cox's petty Bonnie Fuller revenge fantasies? After all, co-exec-producer David Arquette (Cox's real-life husband) has described the show as "turning the tables" on the snappers who've staked out his family. As a result, Dirt feels like such a textbook vanity project that it possesses all the objectivity of US Weekly's fashion page. (Put it this way: If Robert Downey Jr. conceived a show called Assholes about narcotics officers, could we trust him to be impartial?)

 

Maybe the Cox-Arquettes should be grateful for the fact that people clamor to photograph them. There are lesser personalities out there who'd love to be stalked by a schizoid pap. Emmanuel Lewis, for instance. Or Vanilla Ice. Or any one of the sub D-listers appearing on The Surreal Life Fame Games, a new show that pits hungry celebs against each other, measures their respective fame through a variety of humiliating challenges, houses the winners in one of those dime-a-dozen cliff-side mansions, and banishes the losers to slightly shoddier digs. The losers even get a three-legged dog to increase the pathetic ambiance.

This may sound like Easy Street to those of us ensconced in efficiency apartments with space heaters, but you must understand how brittle are the egos involved. Let's break for a pertinent personal anecdote: I saw Fame Games contestant Chyna Doll at the Rainbow in West Hollywood two weeks ago. As I watched her aimlessly stagger across the patio in her aqua sweatsuit, clinging to a friend for support, she seemed as fragile as her inanimate namesake. Sure enough, in the very first episode of the show, Chyna is the first one to crack when a group of bystanders fails to ask for her autograph. Ron Jeremy is quick to comfort her (I can't believe I just typed that), but the overall mood is glum.

This motley army is being forced to confront a cruel reality: that despite their shared status as outcasts—Hollywood Goonies—some of them are more valuable than others. (In this case, Pepa trumps Vanilla Ice, who trumps Mini-Me, who unfortunately trumps the awesome C.C. DeVille. There's no accounting for taste.)

In an upcoming episode, the gang is challenged to see how many celebrities they can get to answer the phone. Do you see how evil this is? Pitting Blackberry against Blackberry in an already fraught environment, forcing these vulnerable people to exploit their dwindling contacts? (And should Pepa really get points for calling Spinderella?) This is like forcing a group of 12-year-old boys into an impromptu public penis-measuring contest. There will be tears, I assure you.

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