In times of what we might charitably call flexible morality, the most effective moralists are those whom people don’t even realize are moralists.
Moliere earned acclaim as a wicked wit by brilliantly lampooning the hypocrisies of seventeenth century France, Jonathan Swift was widely admired while skewering the pretensions of the Enlightenment, and Aldous Huxley received accolades from twentieth century intellectuals while mocking their utopian schemes.
A more humble but equally intentional modern purveyor of this sort of stealth moralizing is the new ABC-TV series Dirty Sexy Money, premiering tonight.
The show presents plenty of the muck the title promises, but it also has a sound moral foundation just under the surface sleaze. In the first dialogue scene of the initial episode, Tripp Darling (Donald Sutherland), patriarch of New York’s wealthiest family, quickly raises the issue of moral probity when he tells charity-oriented lawyer Nick George why he wants him to serve as the family’s attorney after the death of Nick’s father, who was the Darlings’ trusted counselor for forty years (a revealingly Biblical number): “You have a moral center,” Tripp says. “I miss having that solid citizen by my side to tell me which way is up. And I trust you.”
Nick, ego and moral passions equally inflamed, takes the position after getting the proposed salary increased to $10 million a year with a goodly amount to go to his charitable organization. Naturally, it turns out that even that much money is insufficient compensation for all the folly he must endure.
Tripp’s daughter Karen says that Nick is the only man she ever loved, and keeps trying to seduce him even though he’s happily married to another woman and she’s about to marry for the fourth time. Younger daughter Juliet has even more serious problems, attempting suicide after finding out that her father has bought for her an acting role she thought she had earned. Tripp’s enigmatic wife, Letitia (Jill Clayburgh), is all good manners and icy remoteness.
Eldest son Patrick, the attorney general of New York (in a superb performance by William Baldwin), is married and has children but is in love with a transvestite. Middle son Brian is an Episcopal priest with a bad temper, worse manners, and a secret illegitimate child. Youngest son Jeremy, Juliet’s fraternal twin, is a classic playboy wastrel.
Their disturbances are presented in largely comic terms, but the producers, led by series creator Craig Wright, create a serious undertone by frequently showing the characters in tightly enclosed spaces, especially in limousines, to create a strong sense of entrapment. Conversely, when a minor character severs her connection with the family by abandoning her illegitimate son to the boy’s father, priest Brian, the scene takes place in the open spaces of a public park.
As is common in satires, the characters continually lie to one another in order to sustain a façade of respectability. Ironically, Juliet is a virgin who lets everyone think she’s a slut, because “It’s easier.” A possible reason why she stays away from men is her apparently unnatural feelings toward twin brother Jeremy.
Similarly, Patrick pretends to be a conventional husband and father while having homosexual affairs, which mean much more to him than his married life. Brian is a married Christian minister who has had a child by another woman and takes the boy into his family by pretending that the lad is a Swedish orphan. Jeremy pretends to enjoy his latest girlfriend when he cannot get his mind off of twin sister Juliet. Nick’s father, celebrated for his integrity, actually had a forty-year affair with Letitia Darling.
And patriarch Tripp may have the worst secret of all: possible complicity in the murder of Nick’s father.
In sum, the Darlings behave like human trash but have enough money and a good enough lawyer to insulate them from all the consequences — except the enormous meaninglessness of their lives. Juliet, for example, moans to her mother about how desperate she feels because nothing she does has any affect, positive or negative, on anybody: “It makes me feel so stupid and lame to have everything taken care of all the time. I want to be a human being.” “And some day you’ll be one,” says Leticia, referring to an imaginary point in the future when Juliet, who is physically an adult but just a child in terms of moral maturity, will leave home and take care of herself.
Similarly, while whining about the fact that he must hide his homosexuality, Patrick says, “Funny thing is, I’m not allowed to be loved for who I really am. Poor people — nobodies — regular beings that only God sees, they can be loved for who they are, but not me. Because . . . I’m a scion. I’m a Darling twig, a tender shoot that’s stuck to a tree that I cannot live without.” In Patrick’s fevered imagination, the poor are free and the rich are enslaved.
This self-pity is entirely unjustified, of course, for the Darlings’ situation is entirely self-imposed. Patrick is right to observe that his real problem is his unwillingness to be removed from the tree and planted in free ground of his own. He doesn’t want to tell the truth about himself because he doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of his choices. Thus money doth make cowards of us all.
Like the best moral stories, Dirty Sexy Money sets hard choices before its characters and invites us to evaluate their responses and think about whether we’d have the courage to do better. The dirt, sex, and humor are there to make the medicine go down so easily that we hardly realize it’s actually good for us.
— S. T. Karnick maintains the American Culture website, stkarnick.com.