Thanks to the combination of curiosity, camera-phone, the Internet, and, now, YouTube, the culture of celebrity, never that sane in the first place, has seemed to have taken another lurch deeper into the madhouse. In recent weeks those of us who could spare time from the Lohan implosion, the Kramer collapse, or the vital Simpson debate (Jessica or Ashlee?), and who were so inclined, could have seen much more of seedy Britney than nasty Kevin has managed of late, or, if we preferred, we could have contemplated the rise, fall, and possible rise again of this nation’s most recent “troubled” Tara, That’s Miss USA, not, for once, Ms. Reid.
Not enough for you? Well, there was plenty more where that came from. We could, as usual, have feasted on Nicole Richie’s missing meals, or, perhaps, taken a little time out to wonder about Kate Bosworth’s disappearing body and Cameron Diaz’s disappearing Justin. Then there were all those images, so, so, many of them, annoyingly blurry, frighteningly clear, snatched, deer-trapped-in-the-headlights, embarrassing, banal, sexy, grotesque, compelling, sort-of-interesting, sort-of-not: shopping trips, nipple slips, fashion disasters, velvet-rope battles, parking dramas, minor traffic accidents, and, repeatedly, and why not, Jessica Alba and her bikini. Oh yes, there’s Paris too. We’ll always have Paris, epicenter of global trivia, and, for that matter, the most successful grande horizontale since Pamela Harriman swam her last lap, even if, in a confusing development, Miss Hilton has now declared a moratorium on dating in favor of nights with Brigitte Bardot, her pet monkey.
But try as hard as they might, those who now drive these stories are not from television, newspapers, or even those mags that take the edge off the supermarket checkout line. The people to watch these days are something new, amateurs or freelancers dreaming of the big time, and, while they are at it, ripping, and riffing, off the more established media they both need and threaten. Even the once-mighty paparazzi are looking a touch passé, their Leicas, Nikons, and elaborate stakeouts now menaced by an observant passer-by with his or her Nokia, Samsung, or Motorola. The Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds, may have exaggerated a little when he wrote about the appearance of an Army of Davids, but there isn’t much doubt that an army of Peeping Toms is among us and that, as a result, the gossip bazaar will never be the same again. Will we need People quite so much when the malicious are working their keyboards, online, on time, and, all too often, with that addictive extra slime?
The answer, in fact, almost certainly, is “yes,” but the magazine may have to take a different tack from the (generally) respectful approach that it now takes. There will always be a market for adoring, star-struck coverage (indeed in the U.K., the publishers of Hello have made a very good living doing just that, and then over here there’s Larry King), but gush about the “gowns” of Oscar night now has to compete with commentary like this (about an unfortunate skirt worn by the only truly convincing reason to have ever watched The OC):
When there’s nothing left to believe in, believe in Mischa Barton. Because she will always wear something that cheers you up instantly. Take this joke of a skirt, for instance. It’s like a clown repurposed a blazer and wrapped it around her waist. Amusing, but not in a complimentary, deliciously whimsical kind of way; it’s more of a hideous Fisher Price “Baby’s First Buttons” kind of funny. Mostly, I just want to tug it down so that I don’t accidentally get a view of her birth canal. Still, at least we’re laughing. Maybe for that, we owe her a debt of gratitude. Maybe we should all stand in front of her and join in a thinly harmonized chorus of “For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow,” led by Tim Curry, because the world needs more of him. And maybe, if we lavish her with enough giggles and praise, she’ll back away slower than a gun-toting Mrs. Peacock, wary of our ulterior motives and never to be heard from in this capacity again.
I’d be expecting a little more bitchiness from People before too long.
None of this is to claim that that celebrity coverage was, in the past, as consistently fawning as some of today’s generation probably imagine. Just ask Fatty Arbuckle. Sure, there was Rock Hudson, but then there was Billy Haines too. Yes, there was a highly effective star machine, and those old studio chiefs certainly knew how to put a stop to unhelpful talk in the press about dangerous liaisons, dying marriages, and fatal car crashes. But by the mid-1950s, excitingly named scandal sheets like Confidential, Exposed, Whisper, and Private Lives boasted a combined circulation of more than ten million, and drove Hollywood to distraction, and, inevitably, the courts (to stave off an indictment, Confidential’s publisher, Robert Harrison, the “King of Leer” agreed to switch his magazine’s approach to flattery and puff pieces: naturally, circulation collapsed), not that, in the end, it was to do much good.
How, and why, so many people are so fascinated by celebrities is hard to explain. It’s something to do with mankind’s urge both to create, and to destroy, idols, it’s obviously also deeply rooted in our primate DNA, and it clearly owes a great deal to the fact that most of us live lives that are dull, dull, dull; vicarious thrills are better than none at all. Nevertheless, even if America’s obsession with celebrity has lasted a long time (and it has), its current incarnation seems more consuming, more demanding, more worshipful and more malicious than in the past. Almost certainly, that most reliable of scapegoats, the Internet, bears much of the blame. In creating its illusions of intimacy, access and authenticity, it persuades us that we ‘know’ these stars far better than ever before. At the same time, its limitless appetite for content makes celebrities out of D list riff-raff with “narratives” that would disgrace a trailer park, yet only add to the frenzy.
Throw in the fact that this new celebrity culture is both manipulated by the entertainment business and beyond its control, and there is obviously an ideal opportunity for a new Nathanael West or Ernest Lehman to tell us what’s going on. Instead, we got Courteney Cox. Her new TV series, Dirt (Cox is both star and executive producer), was billed as a show that would offer a revealing, clever, and sexy glimpse of gossip and its markets. Unfortunately, what we get is occasionally sanctimonious, slightly stale, and, rather too often, simply dull. Even the sex (Dirt is shown on FX, so viewers do get to see some) seems self-consciously “edgy,” contrived, and, at times literally, mechanical. Dirt may have been designed to appeal to the audience that FX has found with the wonderful Nip/Tuck, but it lacks the relentless perversity, carnivore morality, and wild melodrama that make a visit to McNamara/Troy a highpoint of the viewing week.
Of course Courteney Cox is as icily beautiful as ever, a John Singer Sargent portrait come to life and toned at the gym, as she plays the ruthless (yet curiously vulnerable) tabloid editor Lucy Spiller. She’s powerful, abrasive, and feared, but, as usual when we see women in such roles, there’s that pesky vulnerability and a Devil Wears Prada, what-has-she-given-up-to-get-where-she-has subtext to her role — clichés that subvert the very power that her character would ideally project. Was there a limit as to how unsympathetic a Lucy that the former Monica Geller was prepared to play? If so, that’s a mistake.
But if Cox has failed to see what fun, and what good box office, a truly vicious role could be, her show, so far, also seems to be missing an even more interesting opportunity, the chance to comment on what the Internet has meant to Lucy’s grubby universe. There’s a sense in which (judging by its first three episodes) Dirt’s underlying premise is, well, a little dated. That tabloids like Lucy’s are not quite as central to the gossip trade as they once were is not touched on, an odd omission given Courteney Cox’s own extensive experience, good and bad, of the sharp end of the celebrity obsession. True, Lucy’s two publications, Drrt (kind of like an upgraded National Enquirer, and, yes, that’s how it’s spelled) and Now (a Life/Newsweek hybrid) appear to be under great financial and competitive pressure, but we are never told why. Similarly, a conversation in which she tells one movie mogul that as much as he and his “Hollywood pals” hate to admit it, they need her, points to another worthwhile direction in which the show might evolve. An examination of the conflicted, and ever more complex, relationship between Tinseltown and those who make a living out of its dirty linen would be well worth watching. Sadly, with the exception of one rather lame sub-plot that I cannot be bothered to discuss, the episodes that I have watched show no sign that Dirt will go down that route.
That’s not to say that the show is entirely without merit. Very occasionally, some encouraging hints of what could be are allowed to surface. So, for example, in the first episode we catch Lucy at a Hollywood party eyeing an incident here, hearing a remark there, and, as she does so, we see (with the help of some clever graphics) how she visualizes the scandals behind them appearing on her next cover. It’s a nice touch. So too, a couple of cast members show promise. Hogwarts disgrace Ian Hart (that rotten Quirinus Quirrell) is impressive as “functioning schizophrenic” Don Konkey, Lucy’s favorite paparazzo and, it appears, only true friend. In a strangely understated show, his lurid hallucinations, virtuoso twitches, and fumbled prescriptions stand out. Sure, there may be a touch of Coney Island about the whole spectacle, but Konkey’s psychosis would make for compelling viewing even without the welcome bonus of his intriguing relationship with a rather pretty dead girl (Shannyn Sossamon). Nevertheless, it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that, as with Tony Shalhoub’s only marginally less twitchy performances in Monk, an initially watchable mental ailment will become increasingly less so as the series progresses, particularly if its peculiarities are used as a lazy substitute for a plot. Other than Hart, it’s also worth keeping an eye out for the progress of Alexandra Breckenridge as Willa, the ingénue reporter clearly on her way to the way to the dark side. Her early moments in the show have included deceit, drug use, and a slight suggestion of the Sapphic. Well done!
Finally, and rather surprisingly given the impressive tawdriness of the celebrity circuit, the stories that Dirt digs up add up to less than Page Six on a slow day: sports star cheating on his wife, starlet suicide, action star hires interior decorator (uh oh), and, wait for it, turns out to be gay, you know how it goes. It says a lot about Dirt, and, some would say, even more about our society, that the best story it has generated emerged not from the series itself, but from one of its reviewers. In short, Lucy Spiller’s battery-powered orgasms led a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle to publish an unfortunate and possibly (it’s debatable) unchivalrous comment about the fair Courteney. Jimmy Kimmel is also involved. As this is National Review Online, not Drrt, or, for that matter, the San Francisco Chronicle, I am not prepared to go into the distressing details, but, if, on the other hand, you are one of our more broad-minded readers, or just plain nosey, the offending review can be found here, Jimmy Kimmel’s dramatic encounter with the poor, possibly slighted Ms. Cox can be seen on YouTube (of course), and, in a desperate attempt to draw a conclusion to the whole shocking affair, the Chronicle’s caddish critic has now published an “erotic retraction” on his blog. Make of it all what you will.
As for me, I’m just pleased there’s going to be a fifth season of Nip/Tuck.
– Andrew Stuttaford writes from New York.