From the pilot episode, it’s not clear what kind of show Dirty Sexy Money is going to be: comedy, social critique, family drama, lifestyle magazine, murder mystery. Now, there’s no reason it can’t be all things, but there wasn’t enough intelligence evident in this pilot to convince that it can do any one particularly well.
As a lifestyle magazine, it has the music, locations and clothes. However, the characters aren’t cool enough to make any of it seem really desirable. The OC cast was the right age demographic to be listening to Spoon and the New Pornographers (even if the wrong class, forever stigmatising indie hipness); Dirty Sexy Money is 30 year olds who like the Kaiser Chiefs and think Timbaland produces consistently excellent beats. Likewise, the New York high life here doesn’t have any of the glamour that people who aspire to glamour won’t have seen in a million other media.
As a murder mystery, I hope the best comparator turns out to be Ugly Betty. Ugly Betty’s creators were perfectly candid about dropping the whole bandaged-woman mystery when it proved unpopular. It seemed obvious that the woman would be Fey Sommers until Alexis emerged; in the same way, it seems obvious that the priest killed the father (maybe on the patriarch’s orders following the affair) but I don’t expect to be surprised to find someone else did it. As with most such mysteries, who is a less interesting question than why. Who works better in long-running shows where we know the characters and might have some investment in them. Here, one of several assholes killed someone we never met. Which of them doesn’t really matter to us, but why might work if it leads us (or the characters) to reassess our initial assumptions about why rich people do what. Sadly, the closing voiceover rather pompously indicated that who would be the story.
As a comedy, even the bloody Radio Times has been comparing it to Arrested Development. Dirty Sexy Money only had one vaguely amusing line by my count, the one about not giving a trannie hooker a cheque. The writers seemed to agree with me, as this line was repeated in the episode and trailed in all the publicity. This isn’t the kind of running joke that so rewarded viewers of Arrested Development. Also, it’s only really funny because of the use of the word trannie, a word much better employed by Tracy Jordan’s ‘sneaky Taiwanese trannie who stole my wallet’.
The comparisons with Arrested Development do Dirty Sexy Money equally few favours in its attempts to be a family drama. Michael Bluth is a far better mediation on trying to live up to and simultaneously reject your father. For Nick George it’s as simple as never wanting to be your father, a simple adolescent rebellion with – it would seem so far – none of the desire for approval that often sits in tandem. Compounding this oversight, isn’t Donald Sutherland a father figure anyone would want to impress?
As a social critique, Nick is moreover too weak a character to drive the narrative. Nick needs to act rather than observe; things aren’t exactly so subtle that we need a guide through proceedings. His ‘screw you guys, I’m going home’ tantrums are about as convincing as Michael Bluth’s. More interesting angles would be Nick genuinely compromising his ethics (whether for the ‘right’ reasons of saving the orphans or avenging his father, etc.), struggling to reform the Darlings while trying to reconcile his own John Edwards ‘haves and have nots’ tensions, and so on.
More than anything else, for the show to succeed on any of these levels it desperately needs better characters. A fully realised character is not a stereotype with a stereotypical quirk. William Baldwin as the political candidate with a penchant for transsexuals is Nathan Petrelli with a less interesting personal conflict. Maybe that’s all to come, but it doesn’t bode well that its writers felt the need to spend an hour of our time sketching out caricatures so thin they were developed in full by the way they walked to the funeral.