FX's new series "Dirt" is about the seamy side of the celebrity world, focusing on a magazine editor (Courteney Cox) with the power to make and break the careers of the people on her publications' pages.
The goal for series creator Matthew Carnahan, though, is to make a show "that's not about what it's about."
"It's like a nasty, dirty morality play," says Carnahan, a veteran of such shows as "Fastlane" and "Trinity." "It's really about the effects of our actions and the interrelatedness of our actions, and personal responsibility."
The show's central character, Lucy Spiller, certainly has a lot to answer for: The editor of two magazines, the People-like Now and hard-core tabloid Drrt -- the extra "r" is for extra-raunchy -- Lucy holds a lot of sway in the back-and-forth game celebrities play with the media. In just the first couple of episodes, she scores a series of scoops by manipulating a down-on-his-luck actor (Josh Stewart), sends a photographer (Ian Hart) to take pictures of a dead actress' corpse and sets up a star athlete (ex-NBA player Rick Fox) to have some rather raw poolside sex with a prostitute, for reasons not yet revealed.
Lucy is so cold-blooded that it's almost disorienting to see her played by Cox, one of the most recognizable faces in television thanks to her decade-long run as Monica on "Friends." She's also been a frequent tabloid and paparazzi subject, particularly when she was pregnant with daughter Coco in 2004.
A character like Lucy, then, is essentially "her worst nightmare," Carnahan says with a laugh.
"I think now, she's fully invested in the character and will defend the character, as actors do once they get inside a role," he says. "But I know that friends of hers who are actors and who are stalked by paparazzi see the show and are shocked. They're shocked by her playing that character, and by the things that her character and [Hart's] character and the people at the magazine do on her behalf."
Much of it isn't pretty, and much of it is perpetrated by Don Konkey, a paparazzo who's very good at his job despite suffering from schizophrenia. Carnahan was researching the condition prior to working on "Dirt," and when he signed on he found that the two worlds meshed.
"The thematic framework that I kept coming back to for the show was this darkly comic look at a cultural apocalypse," Carnahan says. "Don is in a way both a messenger and a harbinger of this apocalypse."
Watching Don battle his demons humanizes the character and allows viewers to have some sympathy for the man despite the underhanded nature of his work. Don also brings out a tender side in Lucy, who looks after him like a brother.
Carnahan admits he had a tough time getting a handle on Lucy, but things changed after he flew to London and met with Rebekah Wade, the editor of The Sun, one of London's most notorious daily tabloids.
"I ended up finishing a draft of the actual shot pilot and felt like, 'Ugh, it's not there,'" he recalls. "I went to London and sat down with Rebekah Wade, and that's when it all turned around. I was like, Oh -- this is a woman who does all those things that kind of person -- a power broker, a tough animus-driven woman -- does. And yet she was sexy and brilliant and funny as hell. ...
"Flying back from London I wrote a bunch of new material, and we shot it and cut some other material about [Lucy] and her family out of the pilot. ... And I finally felt like, OK, this is getting there. Hopefully I'll have a season and maybe another season to really get there. ... And it really gave Courteney something to play. Suddenly she was playing a character that she really sensed was dimensional."
Cox and her husband, David Arquette, who are executive producers of "Dirt," have brought some of their own experiences with the media to the show's writers. Carnahan also has some first-hand knowledge of that side of celebrity, as he lives with and has a child with actress Helen Hunt.
"Certainly walking down a red carpet when you're a nobody and with somebody who's a somebody, that made it into the pilot," he says. "The whole moment of [photographers saying] 'Would you mind stepping aside so we can get a fashion shot' -- that just means, 'Get the hell out of the way, loser.' I've definitely had those kinds of experiences, and Courteney and David have a million of them. They make their way in all the time."