Instead of paparazzi digging for dirt on Courteney Cox, it's the other way around now.
Opting not to use her married name Cox-Arquette this time, one of television's former "Friends" returns to series work by targeting the tabloids as star and an executive producer of the FX drama "Dirt," premiering Tuesday, Jan. 2. Her new alter ego, Lucy Spiller, is a ruthless and demanding celebrity-magazine editor determined to outscoop her rivals. Frequent assistance comes from skilled but emotionally unstable photographer Don Konkey (Ian Hart, "Finding Neverland").
Their decisions have profound effects on a number of lives, including those of a top actress (Laura Allen), her not-as-successful actor boyfriend (Josh Stewart, "Third Watch") and another starlet (Shannyn Sossamon, "A Knight's Tale"). Jeffrey Nordling ("Once and Again") appears as the publisher Lucy answers to. Among guest stars for the show's initial run are Grant Show ("Melrose Place"), Mariette Hartley and Paul Reubens -- alias Pee-wee Herman.
"I think the show just gets better and better," Cox says while multitasking on her exercise bike. "It's a great challenge. I can't even believe what I'm reading, it gets so wild." The actress consulted real paparazzi in readying the show, especially since she reports FX President and General Manager John Landgraf "felt very sure he wanted it to be much more in the workplace. He wanted my character to be pulling the strings, orchestrating all the stuff that goes on."
Indeed, it's clear to see right from the opening party scene what motivates Lucy. "Work is the most important thing to her," Cox says. "She wants to find out the truth, then she wants to print it. At the same time, she's got her own struggle. She's learning what the truth is in her life, what drives her to get this information and why she has to be this way. That unfolds as the series goes along. People are obsessed with pop culture, and my character does what she can to report it, but some of what she does is questionable."
With its occasional blue language and partial nudity, "Dirt" is in league with such other FX series as "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield," and Cox planned to stay behind the scenes on it. "When we pitched this to FX two years ago, it didn't have a [central] female character. It was more about the paparazzi world and how this really wonderful actor, who almost made it but didn't, was in love with a famous superstar and couldn't keep up with her. When he got really down and out, he sold information.
"They bought that idea in the room , but they wanted to make it more about the tabloid world. It wasn't until we found Matthew Carnahan (actress Helen Hunt's longtime beau, credited as the show's creator), who loved the idea and just ran with it, that I read the script and decided I'd be a fool not to do it."
Even with Cox fronting it, "Dirt" is an ensemble piece, with co-star Hart a standout as ever-unpredictable cameraman Konkey.
"When I saw him read for the part, there wasn't a question in my mind he was the perfect person for it," Cox recalls. "He makes this guy absolutely human, and I'm thrilled he's in the show. He brings such credibility to it. One of the ways to show Lucy's positive side is that she does take care of Don. Without her, who knows what would happen to him? She needs him and he needs her, and whenever I'm doing scenes with Ian, I feel like he's someone I just want to take under my wing."
The fictional Konkey seems more vulnerable than actual paparazzi Cox has encountered. "When I was pregnant, I was really hounded by the paparazzi. They're very obsessed with babies, so that was probably the worst I'd ever experienced. This girl who works in my office would witness this every day, and you get in this mode where you just want to protect the baby, so you find yourself trying to outrun them. I was on a mission to escape, but that girl said, 'We ought to do a show about this.' That's how it all started."
From the outset, Cox is aiming to set "Dirt" maven Lucy apart from her iconic "Friends" role as Monica. "I hope I have some fans left from those 10 years," she reflects, "but as a friend of mine said, it's good there are three separate stories in the pilot episode. Hopefully, it'll let people get their feet wet with this a little and not think about Monica, but get a chance to look at me in a different way."
Previously a producer of WE: Women's Entertainment's "Mix It Up" and TBS' "Daisy Does America," Cox is joined in making "Dirt" by husband David Arquette, who also debuts in ABC's reunited-friends sitcom "In Case of Emergency" Wednesday, Jan. 3. Add them to the other Arquettes currently doing weekly television, Patricia ("Medium") and Rosanna ("What About Brian").
"Coming from a show where we thought we were working hard, to hear my sister-in-law Patricia say that doing an hourlong show is tough, she's not wrong -- but it's so worth it," Cox concludes. "You can't really prepare yourself for it, but Coco comes down to the set every day and then goes to her father's set, so it's like a family situation."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun