Turning the tables
Courteney Cox's new FX show Dirt highlights how far a tabloid will go to get the juiciest stories. She knows a little about that.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 2, 2007
In today's world of wall-to-wall celebrity scandal, it might be a typical tale: A famous man takes an alluring partner to a private hot tub in a ritzy hotel, only to later discover the tryst has been captured by a wily paparazzo.
It's shocking enough to form the backbone for tonight's debut of Dirt, Courteney Cox's new drama set in the world of tabloid news. And it features some real-life gossip fodder in the form of former NBA star and ex-husband to Vanessa Williams Rick Fox, playing an athlete enjoying some unorthodox sexual tastes with a porn star posing as a groupie.
The idea came partly from star and executive producer Cox, a frequent tabloid target herself, who said the scene was loosely based on the tribulations of two famous friends.
She won't name them, except to say they were never co-workers. (So dump the Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt rumors before they start!) The pair were captured in a hotel hot tub on their honeymoon by a photographer who had dug a pit into the ground to avoid detection.
"The magazine called them and said we won't print these, but we need you to do this for us," said Cox, withholding details to keep her friends' identity secret. "This girl had to give something in order to not have those pictures printed . . . And that kind of exchange happens all the time."
A lot of the action in Dirt feels like it was ripped directly from tabloid headlines. Centered on Cox's character, ruthless editor Lucy Spiller, the series outlines a depressingly dog-eat-dog Hollywood. Here, actors rat out their famous friends for favorable coverage and photographers will do anything - including cut off a finger - to get access for a crucial shot.
In just one episode, viewers learn a hunky action movie star is secretly gay, a virginal pop star has burned her face while freebasing cocaine and a manager who handles rap artists has beheaded the star planning to leave him.
Cox agreed viewers may wonder how much truth there is behind the stories.
"Hopefully, it will never be taken the wrong way, because it's probably not about anyone you think," said Cox, 42, gulping for air while completing a workout on her elliptical machine. (Time is so tight for the actor-producer-mother these days, interviews are conducted by telephone from her Los Angeles home before her jam-packed workday begins).
"Every time you read a newspaper, everybody's doing the same thing," she said. "Gossip repeats itself throughout history. It could be anything. We're not going to make up new gossip; the old gossip just keeps going in circles."
Cox and her actor husband, David Arquette, are executive producers for Dirt (Arquette also has his own mid-season comedy, In Case of Emergency, debuting on ABC Wednesday). So far, the show's biggest controversy may come from its premise.
Every word printed by this fictional tabloid - also named Dirt - is true (in the context of its fictional world, of course).
"That's really important to give (Spiller) some kind of compassionate quality," said Cox, who may be playing her most unsympathetic character since pushy tabloid reporter Gale Weathers in the Scream trilogy. "They don't want to print lies . . . They want to break stories . . . (And) there's a reason in her past why she finds it so important to expose the truth in people."
Given today's fascination with celebrity scandal, Cox's project would seem that rare moment when the zeitgeist and TV development cycles are in synch.
So why are some critics so negative about Dirt's prospects? (TV Guide called it the year's biggest flop before 2007 even started.) One theory: expectations that audiences will reject yet another TV show about the inner workings of Hollywood, as with NBC's lukewarm new series, Studio 60 and 30 Rock.
Cox isn't buying it.
"Studio 60, 30 Rock - these are all soap operas," she said. "These are all just dramas about people. And look at how many tabloid magazines there are now. So . . . I think people shouldn't get so hung up on being inside show business and just fall in love with the characters."
From Monica Geller on Friends to Jim Carrey's love interest in the Ace Ventura movies, Cox has made a mint playing likable ditzes.
But in real life, the actor confidently cooked up the initial idea for Dirt when her producing partner noticed how the paparazzi pounced when she was pregnant with daughter Coco. Though Cox initially intended to focus on male characters, FX suggested - surprise! - that she center the story on a woman, balancing their male-focused hits such as The Shield and Rescue Me.
Cox relates that she got FX to yank a promotional ad featuring a body double, because she didn't want to waste crucial press interviews explaining to reporters why she didn't have time to wallow in a mud bath for the shoot.
And she downplays a scene in which Cox's emotionally isolated character masturbates, unable to connect with a partner.
"It's a big stretch for me to accept myself as not (playing) a girl anymore," Cox said. "I told my mom, there are going to be certain scenes you don't need to see. Close your eyes until the music stops; chances are, the scene will be over."
These days, Cox chooses her words carefully. She's still smarting from an interview with Access Hollywood, where she admitted missing her former Friends castmates and agreeing with Aniston that they would enjoy filming a reunion show, if the chance ever came.
Access talking head Billy Bush pushed Cox to say she and Aniston "might" do a reunion. By the time overseas tabloids reported the story, she was quoted as saying the two were considering a reunion without the other cast members.
Seems Cox forgot a rule her Dirt character knows well: In tabloid news, nothing - especially a few key words - gets in the way of a great scoop.
Times TV/media critic Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
The premiere debuts at 10 tonight on FX. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences). Grade: A-