Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fall 2007 TV: Dirty Sexy Money

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)

Every fall, there seems to be one show that builds my expectations up high, then disappoints me. Studio 60 is a recent example. Bionic Woman is this year's example. And there usually seems to be one show for which I had negative expectations, but which takes me by surprise, and becomes one of my favorites. How I Met Your Mother is a recent example. Dirty Sexy Money is this year's example.

That's right: I loved it. Despite the amazing cast, I thought it would be just another disposable nighttime soap. And it is a soap, that much is true. But it's hilarious. It had me laughing from beginning to end, and loving the whole crew of characters, even the sad and despicable ones. Well played, ABC.

Peter Krause is Nick George. As a child, he watched his father devote all his time and attention -- and love -- as lawyer to the ultra-rich, and ultra-messed up, Darling family, while Nick was left by the wayside. Now Nick is an idealistic lawyer helping the disadvantaged, his father is dead from a mysterious (of course) plane crash, and the Darling family want him to take his father's place as their lawyer.

Well, most of them do, mainly patriarch Tripp Darling, played by Donald Sutherland with magnificent charm concealing an underlying darkness. His wife Letitia (Jill Clayburgh) supports his decision, but is conflicted owing to the 40-year affair she had with Nick's father. The oldest daughter, Karen (Natalie Zea), has been in love with Nick since they were kids; through three divorces and an impending fourth marriage, she loves him still. Oldest son Patrick (William "don't call me Billy" Baldwin), a New York Attorney General, trusts Nick enough to ask him for help in breaking up with his transgendered mistress. The youngest children, twins Juliet (Samaire Armstrong, whom I loved on Entourage) and Jeremy (Seth Gabel), rely on Nick to help them out of the pathetic screw-ups they keep finding themselves in. Only middle child Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald), an Episcopalian reverend, doesn't want Nick involved with the Darling family; he openly hates Nick, and isn't reticent to let him know this -- even at his father's funeral.

There are any number of standout moments that had me in stitches all throughout the pilot. Sutherland's Tripp had me won over as soon as he began negotiating with Nick to get him to sign on as their lawyer: "I'm gonna put my nuts on the table," Tripp says. "Okay, if you have to," Nick replies. Nick's assistant programs his cell phone with custom ring tones for each member of the Darling family, which keeps ringing at the most inopportune moments -- Juliet is "Rich Girl," Karen is "Pretty Woman." Jeremy wins a yacht in Ethan Hawke's poker game -- a yacht which happens to be carrying illegal immigrants. When Patrick enlists Nick's help to buy off his mistress, Nick refuses to go to a hotel room to give a check to a "trannie hooker." Patrick: "You make it sound so dirty." In Nick's office, Karen tells her new fiance matter-of-factly, "Nick deflowered me." Brian's first words onscreen, as a child, to Nick: "I hate you." When Nick eventually snaps and tackles Brian, I was howling. For crying out loud, Dan Rather makes a cameo at the senior Darlings' anniversary party! Now that's comedy.

But the show has layers, without which the comedy might not work so well. There's a sadness, a sense of being lost, underlying much of the tomfoolery. Karen is desperately lonely, despite her many marriages. Juliet, the obvious Paris Hilton analogue, is a failure at everything she attempts (even suicide); despite her shallow exterior, she yearns to succeed on her own, without daddy there to catch her. Jeremy, though he'll never have to work a day in his life, thinks he's got it worse than anyone on Earth -- and you almost believe him. And Nick is trying to deal with the loss of a father he never really knew -- a father who very likely was killed by one of the Darlings.

So it's a soap, all right, but a wonderfully written and acted, and fantastically funny one. That's how you get me to watch a soap: a sense of humor (which is why I watched Desperate Housewives in the beginning). I could do without the voiceover from Nick, which gets a little obvious and overbearing. But I want to find out what happens next to these people. I want to see more of their casual cruelties, and comical peccadilloes. I like these people (or, when it comes to Brian, like to hate them), and I can't wait to discover what's next.

Whether I stick with it for the long haul, I can't say; down the line, maybe they'll run out of clever twists, or maybe I'll tire of following all the relationships and antics. I usually do, even with the best of these kinds of shows. When the original bag of tricks is exhausted, soaps often quickly turn to bigger and more outrageous, which for me usually translates to boring and more ridiculous.

But for now, I'm in. This is my favorite so far of the Fall's new offerings.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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