Dirt is an FX original show about a tabloid, which, much like a tabloid itself, relies on the intrigue of sex and drugs to get viewers. So needless to say, I didn’t go into watching it expecting to be stunned—but after catching a later episode in rerun, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. And now, three episodes in, the feeling of intrigued but not all that impressed continues. However, what does draw keep me watching is the show’s protagonist, Lucy Spiller.
Lucy is the Editor in Chief of two magazines, owned by the same company: Now, a fluff magazine with an unimpeachable record, and Dirt, a glossy tabloid that only avoids libel suits by ensuring that every story it runs is verifiably true. Lucy is a character who got her job by being the best candidate for it; she’s uncompromising in her moral code (which has little to do with good and bad—she makes it clear that the truth is what matters to her, period); she’s willing to do anything and everything, no matter how shady her actions appear to everyone else, to get her story and make sure it’s true. Lucy is fiercely competent and utterly uncompromising.
Her character is a bit of a cliché archetype: a woman with authority who comes across as a ball-breaking bitch. But with that said, the show takes the cliché and uses it effectively; Lucy is the protagonist and the writing, thus far, has not apologized for making her character mean. She’s not liked by everyone, but she is respected, and she doesn’t apologize for holding authority or shirk away when confronted by her own boss. All good traits, handled well. Yet somehow, within the first three episodes, I’ve already run into a couple of problems that have me irritated: specifically, the link between Lucy’s aggressiveness and her sex life, and the direction it looks like they’re going to take her character. Both of these problems stem from the fact that the character type, despite being well handled, is still a cliché.
In the pilot, Lucy meets a guy named Cal and picks him up. The morning after, he reveals that he’s a struggling musician and tries to get her to listen to his stuff, asking her jokingly if she wants to make him famous. He doesn’t know that she’s the editor of Now, and actually has that ability—but she has every reason to think that he knows, and so she throws him out (violently, when he refuses to leave). When she subsequently realizes what happened she apologizes, and they start a relationship wherein he’s her bootycall. (Upon realizing this, he says she’s, “Just like a man,” which…Can you hear me rolling my eyes?)
The second episode, however, has scenes of just Lucy and her vibrator. (Like I said, the show uses tabloid tactics to sell.) It would be a throw away moment, and an interesting one at that (hey! A woman who enjoys having an orgasm for its own sake!), except that in that episode, Cal returns. After they’ve finished having sex (and before Lucy firmly tells him she’s not interested in a relationship outside of sex), he asks if she got off. The upshot of the conversation is that no, Lucy didn’t—and she can’t with a partner, only by using a vibrator. Cal suggests that she’s just desensitized, but Lucy answers that she was never sensitive.
Because Lucy already falls into the character archetype of an assertive—in fact, outright mean—woman with authority, it isn’t a stretch to see the subtext of this. The cliché is the strong female character who is “tamed” by having sex with the right man. Lucy hasn’t been tamed, but reading it backwards does imply that the reason she’s the person she is is that she isn’t sexually satisfied. That’s my moment of anger number one.
Number two, at the end of episode three, is only a potential problem—one I’m wary of because, growing up this culture, I’m sensitive to the cultural conditioning that women aren’t living a fulfilled life unless they’re married and raising kids. Obviously, Lucy is neither of these, and she’s never mentioned wanting them. But in the third episode, we do meet her brother, who says he worries she’ll end up alone in her expensive house, holding a copy of the magazine. The assumption, obviously, is that she’d be unhappy with that. The episode is about her saving her job, which is hanging by a thread, by going after a few truly horrific stories. The issue she puts out is, of course, a huge hit—and she retains her position. But sure enough, the episode ends with Lucy looking around and realizing that she’s standing in the middle of her expensive apartment…holding the issue…all alone. Moments earlier she’d been the happiest we’d ever seen her due to the issue’s sales; abruptly, she’s having a moment of realization that something isn’t right with her life.
Now, that’s where I’ve left off, for now—but needless to say, if they soften Lucy up, I’ll be disappointed. Because, while Lucy isn’t played off as a good or even likable person, she is interesting, competent, and independent. I can’t help but think that if the independence goes, the rest of it probably will too.