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A familiar dig at celebrity media

Taking on tabloid journalism, 'Dirt' needs a dose of humor

Attention! Attention! The death of civilization by tabloid apocalypse is at hand.

Yes, again.

"Dirt," Courteney Cox's new FX series, warns us that the pretty people of Babylon are still selling their souls, and their lip mobility, and their nasal passages, to be the next Brangelina. What's more, "Dirt" asserts, tabloid editors are godless power-brokers who create these celebrities and then use them as piñatas.

Because we didn't know all this already? I'm not sure we need a Chicken Little wake-up call about Hollywood pitilessness and paparazzi invasions. "Dirt," which premieres tonight at 10, picks up where the movie "Sweet Smell of Success" left off in 1957, as it tries to shock us with the human collateral of the star-making machinery. But who isn't cynical enough these days to roll their eyes at Us and Star magazines, or vomit a little in their mouths when Jann Carl fawns over Tom Cruise on "Entertainment Tonight"? We're not a naive culture anymore, and Jon Stewart and his mocking meta-wit are proof of that.

If only the show, produced by Cox and her husband, David Arquette, had a sense of humor. "Dirt" adopts the heightened urgency of FX's "Nip/Tuck," which is also a Big Statement morality fable about America; but then "Dirt" has none of the ironic glee of the plastic-surgery opus. It's a heavy soap opera that's so obsessed with the death of innocence, it forgets about the comic absurdities of decadence. In the course of its first three episodes, "Dirt" gives us only relentless Tinseltown misery -- a suicide, drug addiction, closeted gayness, and blackmail. It's a big bummer trip circa 1950, like a Harold Robbins novel without the camp factor.

As the editor of Drrt (it's spelled with a growl) and Now, its milder sister publication, Cox's Lucy Spiller is a tough cookie who'd manipulate Monica of "Friends" into backstabbing Chandler and then sleep with him on the rebound. And there are many pretty young things on Lucy's menu, most recently Holt (Josh Stewart), whose movie career is in need of a tweak -- say, a puff piece in exchange for secrets about a pregnant starlet?

Lucy draws Holt into her web of amorality, and he submits, so strong is the lure of fame. Steel-willed Lucy always gets her way, anyway, even if it requires extreme measures -- driving a booty call out of her house with the stun gun she keeps by her bed, for example.

As the viper of the piece, Cox is surprisingly OK. On "Friends," she seemed stiff and not quite as cutesy as most of the gang; here, she's an extreme extension of those qualities. The show, like "Sweet Smell of Success," has a noir atmosphere, and Cox ably provides the cold heart at its center. Lara Flynn Boyle might play the role the same way if it were hers. When Drrt staffers groan at the thought of putting coffin photos of a dead actress on the tabloid's cover, Cox makes Lucy's impatient chiding believably bossy. "This isn't Tiger Beat," she groans. As far as Lucy is concerned, the stars are the same dead or alive.

The only person Lucy truly depends on is her ace paparazzo, Don Konkey, a schizophrenic photographer who sneaks his way into crematoriums and wakes like a soldier on a tour of duty. The scenes with Don come alive, as we see manifestations of his hallucinations when he's not on medication.

Actor Ian Hart makes Don into a lovable lowlife with a Tom Waits-like romanticism. As despicable as his work is, Don's mental illness and fringe lifestyle are sympathetic. The problem with the Don material is that it seems to exist independently of the rest of the show, whose scheming, shallow characters and generic actors are never emotionally evocative.

I'm not ready to completely write off "Dirt," because with the right tonal shifts it could work. With a dose of satire and a few contemporary plot lines, the show might feel more knowing and less dated. And how about including the all-important Internet gossip mill in the drama? What about bloggers, such as self-proclaimed "Queen of All Media" Perez Hilton, who are quickly leading the tabloid industry into uncharted territories of nudity (Britney Spears's limo flash) and photo theft?

For a series that prides itself on gritty realities and the dire state of celebrity media, "Dirt" has a little more digging to do.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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