If, as New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis wrote last June, Ocean’s 13 glistens as if dipped in 24-karat gold, then surely ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money has been given the silver treatment–or at least the bronze. Maybe it’s because, nineteen seasons into MTV’sReal World, reality television has hijacked verisimilitude away from scripted television, but dramatic TV can now revel in a fancy-free realm of fantasy and exaggeration. It doesn’t matter if the plot rings true; there’s enough of that crap on Survivor. Cynical as this may seem, it makes for some immensely enjoyable watching on non-reality TV. Dirty Sexy Money isn’t great, won’t draw tears or belly laughs or epiphanic revelations, but it’s immensely enjoyable, a shiny Rolex–someone else’s Rolex–for when you get sick of looking at your cheap, black Casio.
As a weekly sixty-minute diversion, Dirty Sexy Money succeeds because it is far-fetched enough to render suspension of disbelief a complete waste of time. Wealthy socialite families may indeed live in such decadent and dysfunctional squalor as do Dirty Sexy Money‘s Darlings, but from my plainly upholstered living room couch and nacho cheese-stained rug, I wouldn’t know it. For the average viewer, happy (albeit curious) in his ignorance of the travails of life with an eleven-figure net worth, the fiction of the show shines through, and, after enough of Dirty Sexy Money‘s blatantly scripted melodramas and scenes (a multiple-limousine motorcade arrival at a funeral befitting a Colombian cocaine lord for one, a poor-little-rich-girl’s unsuccessful suicidal gesture for another), he’s led to believe that anything dramatic and inflated can happen as long as enough money is written into the show to buy it.
Wonderfully blunt in its aim to entertain, Dirty Sexy Money offers no mere adjectives to portray its scenes and characters, but modified adjectives: son Jeremy Darling isn’t strung out–he’s chronically and comically strung out; patriarch Trip Darling isn’t just mawkish–he’s mendaciously and seductively so. Everyone in Dirty Sexy Money is exactly what he seems to be, only–because reality has been ditched in favor of good TV–tweaked slightly more so in a direction calculated for the desired comic effect. Jeremy makes a funnier spoiled heir/drug addict because his inebriated antics don’t have a budget–and because he learned origami from his cocaine dealer.
His father, Trip, the Darling patriarch played by Donald Sutherland (and, predictably, the only character on the show who consistently makes each scene in which he appears better), is a Master of the Universe and a damn near liquidic character (you can almost smell his Caswell-Massey-oiled leatherface through the TV screen), about as far a step from Sutherland’s turn as a stringy-haired stoner/English Lit professor in Animal House as he could ever take. When Trip takes you into his eely confidence, he parts his lips, shows just the perfect amount of teeth to achieve maximum creepiness–and plausible conviction. Perhaps there actually are people like this, other septuagenarians this well lubricated, but it’s more fun to think that Trip’s and the Darlings’ eccentricities run deeper than real DNA, reaching as far as their creators’ imaginations can logically (or illogically) take them.
Amid the superficial sugar, though, there are pesky currents of morality and family, love and greed, that lurk about. Nick George (Peter Krause), an attorney, inherits the job as lawyer/caretaker/et cetera to “New York’s richest family” after his father dies in a plane crash. Nick, who reacts to being likened to his father like Back to the Future‘s Marty McFly reacts to being called a coward, nonetheless seamlessly assumes his father’s former role and begins handling the Darlings’ dirty laundry–or serving in his official duties as what the inappropriately violent Rev. Brian Darling (another character harmonically tuned for maximum entertainment value) calls the family’s “glorified parasite.”
A do-gooder with a passion for charity, Nick is both the narrator and what in less cynical times would have been called the moral compass of the program. In Dirty Sexy Money, though, since no one seems to care about his behavior–and since the more outlandish it is, the more fun it is to watch anyway–a moral compass is fairly unnecessary (and, from the voyeuristic viewer’s standpoint, frankly unwanted). Decadence simply looks better than temperance: Nick’s dead father/resentful son dynamic–there for the taking!–just doesn’t unfold on television quite as spectacularly as does Attorney General (and potential Senator) Patrick Darling IV’s (William Baldwin) proclivity for transgender prostitutes, as poetically rewarding as it may well be.
But as narrator, Nick demands that the show be his. And after discovering enough circumstantial evidence to draw the conclusion that his father was murdered (indeed, by perhaps none other than Trip Darling), he vows that he’s going to find the culprit. The shenanigans of the rich–the parties attended by Dan Rather; the Trip Darling-financed and Peter Bogdanovich-produced theatre venture; the Louvre-sized apartment–these will be window dressing for Nick’s metaphorical quest to find his father–and for his actual one to find the unknown villain who killed him. For television’s sake, let’s hope the Darlings’ laundry piles high enough–and visually salacious enough–to keep him from these, well–clean, chaste, and valueless–tasks.