I Like to Watch

Too marvelous for words! FX's "Dirt," MTV's "I'm From Rolling Stone" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" explore the ultra-glamorous world of magazines.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published January 7, 2007 2:00PM (EST)

Magazine offices are incredibly glamorous places. I know that whenever I visit Salon's international headquarters in San Francisco, I always marvel at the sheer sophistication of the place and of the beautiful, well-dressed people who bustle about, straightening their Armani suits or touching up their red lipstick, making their important phone calls, discussing weighty topics in hushed tones, or typing out their cover stories with glossy manicured nails, tap tap tap! As you've probably noticed by now, people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of news and politics and a knack with the written word also tend to be hopelessly glamorous and charming and devilishly good-looking to boot, which is why most magazine offices have more in common with dinner rush at Nobu than a place of employ.

But you don't need me to describe the unnerving elegance and style of the magazine world, since the subject is explored repeatedly in romantic comedies and girly novels and TV dramas, most recently in ABC's "Ugly Betty" and last year's hit movie "The Devil Wears Prada." Add to that two new TV shows: FX's "Dirt," a one-hour drama starring Courteney Cox as the editor of a celebrity tabloid, and MTV's "I'm From Rolling Stone," a reality show that follows a gaggle of aspiring journalists as they intern with Rolling Stone magazine for a summer in the hopes of winning a year-long spot as a contributing editor. Yes, the rest of the world is finally catching up to what we in the magazine business have known all along: namely, that we're the most charismatic, alluring people in the known universe. I can't tell you how gratifying it is, to finally see the ultra-sexy realm of word counts and carpal tunnel and petty bickering with editors depicted on the small screen!

Dirt devil
But if you've seen one of those ubiquitous print ads for "Dirt" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on FX) that features Courteney Cox wearing a strapless red floor-length gown, you've already caught a glimpse of how fabulous tabloid journalism can be. Now, personally, I can't remember the last time I saw an editor in a floor-length ball gown, but maybe that's because I've never worked in the undeniably classy world of tabloids.

As good as Cox looks in bright red, though, her character, Lucy, is about as compelling as that soggy, rain-soaked copy of the New York Post you stumbled over on the subway this morning. We'd all love to see Cox transcend her "Friends" persona, but unfortunately she's so unconvincing as a villainous editor, I couldn't stop thinking about the understated, hissed superiority of Meryl Streep's memorable fashion editor, Miranda Priestly, in "The Devil Wears Prada." Streep transformed what might have been a flatly nasty role by taking lines that would be screechy or hysterical in anyone else's hands and smoothing them into breathily demonic utterances that would make any assistant shiver in her Jimmy Choos. But where Streep's restrained, absent-mindedly biting Miranda reminded us of every oppressively arrogant boss we've ever had, Cox's monotone Lucy reminds us of Monica on sedatives.

Basically, Lucy has no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. She's clearly supposed to be a tough and heartless editor, anxious to do whatever it takes to keep her two magazines, Dirt (Think: In Touch or the National Enquirer) and Now (Think: People), afloat. Unlike Miranda, who has a telling habit of ending each interaction with the dismissive phrase "That's all," as in "That's all I need you for, now get the hell out," Lucy has no tells, no tics, no habits at all. She's all business, telegraphed with an unvarying deadpan delivery that's far less artful and interesting than Streep's little resigned sighs and eye rolls. In a clumsy attempt to keep us interested in Lucy, we see her all alone and lonely (right after another character hisses that she's all alone and lonely, just in case we miss the point), and we're treated to recurring scenes of her in bed, matter-of-factly reaching for her vibrator.

Even when Lucy is enjoying her own bitchiness, like when she blackmails a struggling actor, Holt (Josh Stewart), by showing him a video of his girlfriend sleeping with her hunky costar, her eyes are empty and her voice is flat and unwavering. Of course, the quality of the dialogue here is at least partly to blame:

Lucy:You know what we love here at Dirt and Now? Homemade porn.

Holt: So? What's it got to do with me?

Characters on "Dirt" regularly speak to each other with this kind of connect-the-dots obviousness. "What's it got to do with me?" Holt says, right before he sees the tape of his girl screwing her costar. "If I'm gonna do this, my name can never be used," Holt says, before giving up the goods on an actress's unplanned pregnancy. "And I want some cash, and I want some kind of good press, I want stories in your magazines. Stories that make it seem like I'm getting offers." The show's writers seem to think it's necessary to bludgeon us over the head with every plot point. This guy is exchanging secrets for good press, get it?

There's something distinctly disappointing about taking such sly, dark subject matter and making it so clunky and obvious. Exploring the nastiness of tabloids and the self-serving, shallow habits of celebrities? The possibilities are limitless for mean-spirited fun, odd twists, subversive weirdness, self-parody. Instead, all we get is one idea, played out over and over again: These are bad, creepy people who will stoop as low as it takes to get the scoop. Every single character behaves according to this principle, which means we're left with no alarms and no surprises in a world that should be nothing but shocking.

"Dirt" is a great idea for a TV show, and it certainly looks pretty enough, but with writing and acting this leaden, the show has the pretentious, arbitrary thrills and chills of a very expensive student film. The writers seem to feel that we'll be fascinated by the behind-the-scenes world of a tabloid in the absence of any provocative or unexpected story lines. Plus, the whole mess is unbelievable, from Lucy's supposed high profile on the celebrity scene (Do you know the name of the editor of People or the National Enquirer?) to the doomed fates of her celebrity subjects.

But worst of all, worse than the crappy dialogue and the tangential, too-cool-for-school hallucination scenes with the schizophrenic paparazzo (Ian Hart) who spends most of his screen time talking to his dead cat, worse than the scene where a car crashes and then explodes into a fireball like it's packed with fireworks, worse than the editorial meeting where Lucy delivers a rousingly evil speech in front of projected images of sharks eating each other alive, is the undeniably moralistic tone. Like some heavy-handed '70s drama, every disturbing act on "Dirt" has devastating consequences. Instead of taking the world of tabloids with a grain of salt, instead of having fun with it, making it a little bit funny or even the slightest bit silly and pathetic, the producers strain to make it dark and edgy and heavy, with lots of Big Messages about the ruthless nature of the business and the villains who run it. "Dirt" takes celebrity gossip -- and therefore, celebrities -- way, way too seriously, much more seriously than any of us at home do. And when you consider that "Dirt" is executive produced by two celebrities, David Arquette and Courteney Cox, the high stakes and lack of perspective or humor here are even harder to take.

At the start of the first episode, Lucy tells an angry Hollywood power player whose adultery she exposed, "You and all of your Hollywood pals read my magazines and secretly love them, and you know every word is true. As much as you all hate to admit it, you need me." Strange that she makes it all sound so fun, so delightfully perverse, when the self-serious world that "Dirt" depicts is just one painfully awkward downer after another.

Back to base camp
All of which is enough to make you crave a big old campy helping of ABC's "Ugly Betty" (8 p.m. Thursdays), a show that gets away with exploring a landscape populated by slick, glamorous, wretched people by never, ever taking itself the least bit seriously.

Unlike the recently canceled "OC" and "Brothers & Sisters" and "Desperate Housewives" and other graceless soaps that ultimately get bogged down by their soapy format, "Ugly Betty" limits its telenovela/soapy elements so that they never take precedence over character or story. Betty (America Ferrera) and her earnest family and nasty co-workers rarely find themselves drawn into an arbitrary plot line simply because it propels the central mystery forward. Instead, we get a flash or two of the mystery woman making a fiendish phone call to Betty's boss, Daniel (Eric Mabius), then we're on to the main event: Daniel can't stop thinking about Sofia! Betty's father might get deported, and meddling neighbor Gina Gambarro is stirring up trouble again! Betty's in love with her sexy co-worker Henry, but what will she do about her dorky on-again, off-again boyfriend Walter?!

For the uninitiated, those stories probably sound like even more fluff, but each episode of "Ugly Betty" works a little bit like a symphony orchestra tackling Beethoven's Fifth: The story launches with a bang, a series of odd and amusing subplots wander in, and then everything builds to a frantic lather of kitschy, melodramatic madness. This show is pure theatrical fun: extreme close-ups, exaggerated facial expressions, sight gags, cartoonishly clean, colorful sets.

Plus, there are so many little touches to "Ugly Betty" that work: Betty's fashion-obsessed nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato), who treats the offices of Mode like the holy land, Betty's bad-ass sister, Hilda (Ana Ortiz), who's always looking for a fight with Gina (Ava Gaudet), the recurring weirdness of sad little Walter (Kevin Sussman), the perky pettiness of Betty's co-workers Marc (Michael Urie) and Amanda (Becki Newton).

If you took all of the absurdity of "Arrested Development," added some brains to the simpering silliness of "Desperate Housewives," and threw in some of the glossiness and witty banter of "The OC," you'd come up with a show much worse than "Ugly Betty." At the start of each episode, I wonder why I should care about what happens to Betty and her cartoon pals, but by the end, I'm thoroughly entertained and amused -- which is the exact opposite of how I feel about most prime-time soaps.

My only complaint about "Ugly Betty" is that the sleek, chic offices of Mode magazine don't quite do justice to the timeless sophistication of most magazine offices.

Like a complete unknown
Or, in the words of one young intern on "I'm From Rolling Stone" (10 p.m. Sundays on MTV) upon entering the Rolling Stone offices, "Dude, this looks like Enron or something."

Yes, as the crew of disappointed young people soon discovers, magazine offices are not only rather gray and nondescript in most cases, but -- worse yet -- people actually work there. No matter how much the interns strain their necks to catch a glimpse of the rock stars and hot groupies and cold kegs of beer that they suspect must be lurking behind every closed door, all they find are condescending, nitpicky geeks who talk about "nut grafs" and "burying the lede." What's going on? These don't seem like the kinds of people who hang out with rock stars!

Sadly for the stars of "I'm From Rolling Stone," half of whom would clearly prefer to get drunk and engage in street fisticuffs like the kids on "The Real World," this gig is about real work -- reporting and writing. After turning in her first draft of a report on the music scene in her hometown, Krishtine, a 23-year-old hip-hop writer from San Francisco, is devastated to learn that she must rewrite her piece. This laborious process, known in the magazine world as "editing," was not what Krishtine had in mind when she dreamed of working for Rolling Stone. "In terms of the writing process," she says, "the thing that pissed me off a little bit was just the fact that you have to redo it again. It's just a pain in the ass!"

Indeed it is, my little lamb! Unfortunately, during her first interview with rapper/producer El P, Krishtine chatted aimlessly instead of getting any concrete information, so she's forced to call him back. A consummate professional, Krishtine explains, "These f***ing punks over here want me to do some follow-up questions." This is the same woman who, when Jann Wenner offers her an internship, says, "For reals?"

OK, I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm too old and crusty to know that saying "For reals?" and "hella" to your new boss is completely appropriate in today's rapidly shifting global hip-hop economy. But I'm still pretty sure it's not a good idea to tell your new editor that you were drunk when you wrote your piece, as Peter, a Cal-Berkeley student from Australia, does.

But Peter doesn't stop there. "Half of my writing is when I'm drunk," he says, with a smirk.

"Uh, it shows," responds executive editor Joe Levy. "And actually, if you don't take this more seriously, you're not going to last a summer here at Rolling Stone."

Hey! That's not very rock 'n' roll of him! But that seems to be the aim of "I'm From Rolling Stone": Trick kids into thinking they're going to be part of a big, '70s-era, around-the-clock rocker party in New York City, then make them show up on time, act like professionals and do real work.

The "act like professionals" part is the hardest of all, of course. Anyone who stammered and stuttered their way through their first few jobs out of college will appreciate the painful awkwardness of Colin, a junior at USC. He's sent to Toronto to interview the band We Are Scientists, but when he arrives, instead of playing the part of a professional journalist, Colin acts like a shy kid following orders. "I'm supposed to talk to Storm from We Are Scientists, their tour manager?" he says to a crew member. "Should I just give her a call, or ... do you guys have any way of getting in touch with her?" As he fumbles for his cellphone, someone grumbles, "She'll come out in a few minutes," then remarks that he's late.

"I'm a little nervous, I don't know my questions exactly, but I think I'll be all right winging it," he tells us in a voice-over. Uh-oh. Then, as he sits down with the band, tape recorder in hand, he says, "I'm just gonna turn this on and record everything we say." Thanks for the information, kid. "Do you already have the levels checked? Is it gonna pick us up?" a band member says. "I hope so ... Sure, I mean, do you wanna check?" Colin responds. "I don't know, we just did two interviews and they checked levels," snaps the band member. We're off to a good start!

First question: "All right, so in case you guys didn't know, you guys have a show tonight! I want to take this as serious as possible. I think I have that shirt, actually, which is a weird thing to say. Basically, I don't know, I just want you to know, I like you guys as musicians. Um. How's life on the road?"

Ah, yes. A time-honored approach to the interview: Ramble on incoherently, make everyone as uncomfortable as possible, and then ask an inane question that's basically impossible to answer. Naturally, the band refuses to take Colin seriously from the very start.

Band member: They say the road ain't no place to start a family.

Colin: Are you guys working on new material right now, or are you just all focused on touring?

Band member: We're neither focused on touring nor capable of producing anything.

Colin: So you're in a state of stagnation.

Band member: As you can now attest, we don't say anything sincere during an interview.

Or at least, not when the interviewer appears to be a moron. Of course, how interesting would this show be if there were competent professionals involved? The first two episodes of "I'm From Rolling Stone" suggest that, just as spitty outbursts and drunken street fights are the main event on "The Real World," any amusement we can find here is going to come from witnessing the flailings of young people about to bungle their first big job in a wide variety of ways. Russell, the only experienced reporter, is a smooth, intelligent interviewer and a solid writer, but he has a criminal history and it's pretty obvious that they chose him because he appears to have a habit of slacking or quitting when the going gets tough. [Editor's note: Russell Morse has written for Salon in the past.] Krystal, a poet, not only seems likely to produce overwritten prose, but also romanticizes Rolling Stone to an extent that's bound to make reality disappointing. Tika seems foolishly overconfident, Krishtine comes off as lazy and disrespectful, Peter seems to be a drunk, and Colin appears to have a pea-size brain and the poise of a nervous squirrel. In short, "I'm From Rolling Stone" is an exercise in sadism that's so mean-spirited and condescending, it could only have been dreamed up by someone who works in the wild and wonderful world of magazines.

Next week: The tragic hedonists of "Rome" return!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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