(Premieres tonight on ABC, 10p.m. ET/ 9p.m. CT)
Promising a weekly peek into the world of the "immensely wealthy," the new, stylishly self-conscious soap opera Dirty Sexy Money opens with a Bible verse and an image of immense wealth in ruins. In voiceover, star Peter Krause ruminates on whether or not the love of money is the root of all evil while watching a crew dredge for the wreckage of a private plane. Manhattan looms in the background but it's pretty clear from the start that we'll be forced to think about the cost of any glitz and glamour we see.
A lawyer used to working for little money for people with no money, Peter Krause's Nick George would seem to already know this lesson as DSM's pilot begins. His father–a longtime lawyer for the Darling family, the source of all that immense wealth–died in that crash and he's sworn to spend his life as far from their world as possible.
That resolution has dissolved before the second commercial break. Asked by Darling patriarch Patrick "Trip" Darling III (Donald Sutherland) to take over his father's job, Nick crumples at the prospect of a $10 million salary and the promise that he can take the job on his own terms (which ostensibly involves keeping his non-profit work and maintaining a distance from anything shady). Is it just the money drawing him in? At this point, the answer would seem to be "yes." Krause's quick enough to try to leave the job when it gets too messy for his taste but it seems weird for the show to give the character such a shallow motivation and as good as Krause is in the lead, I don't see any additional shading.
I have a feeling we'll get to that, based as much on the show's pedigree as its pilot, which has a lot of business to out of the way in a short span. Show creator Craig Wright comes from the theater world, where he's probably best known for the 9/11 drama Recent Tragic Events, via Lost and Six Feet Under. (DSM reunites him with Peter Krause.) Also on board: Greg Berlanti of Everwood (one of those shows I probably should have watched and never did) and director/producer/actor Peter Horton, who helms the pilot.
The cast is even more impressive. Sutherland's always worth watching and he remains intriguingly cryptic here. It's never clear what's going on behind those blinding teeth. Everyone else has only a few moments to convey who their characters are but most of them manage to make an impression. Though it's yet not clear whether there's anything to Nick's wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan) beyond being extremely pretty and extremely concerned, Jill Clayburgh's turn as the boozy Mrs. Tripp holds a lot of promise. So does Samaire Armstrong in the part of Juliet Darling. I really liked her too-brief stint as Anna on The O.C. though she'll have to take the character beyond its obvious Paris Hilton inspiration if she's to stay interesting. Good at conveying brain-free charisma, William Baldwin makes for an inspired choice as an aspiring politician hiding a secret life, there's potential for considerable depth in Seth Gabel's performance as a hard-living twentysomething, and Natalie Zea is strong as a much-divorced Darling daughter who has a history with Nick. The cast standout for me, however, is Glenn Fitzgerald as a completely guileless bastardly man of the cloth. There are no shades to his characterization. He's just a dick and it's fun to watch his dickishness.
But is it a season's worth of fun? That's the question I ask after every pilot I watch and I don't know the answer yet. The tone here is all over the place. That's not necessarily a bad thing since it gives the show a lot of room in which to roam but I'm not sure it's yet on sure footing as a comedy or a drama. (A late-episode fight scene seemed kind of desperate.) I'm also not quite sure what the thrust of the series will be, despite a last-minute revelation that sets up an overarching story. Still, I like that the show stays self-ware without quite winking and where other nighttime soaps have explored the world of the moneyed class in isolation, I like that DSM keeps its characters in the glare of the spotlight. It's a new world out there, one where boozy, wealthy libertines pop on TMZ with the same regularity of more traditional celebrities. As long as the show stays locked into that, and keeps producing scenes of the kind of over-the-top bad behavior that only wealth can allow, we should be fine but hopefully we'll eventually get back to the gravity of that first scene.
One final thought: Is this Arrested Development recreated as a serialized drama? A lot of the characters match up. I'll throw out this: "Nick = Michael Bluth." Help me make the other connections.
Grade: B Stray observations: — Did anyone else find that business with the ringtones amusing, then annoying, then amusing again? And if they keep it up, how will it play? — Is Sutherland's "I'm gonna put my nuts on the table" line the catchphrase of the season so far or what? — If nothing else, the show should produce a good soundtrack album. Episode one brought us Spoon, The Decemberists, and the New Pornographers in addition to Peter Bjorn & John's suddenly unavoidable "Young Folks." — Hey, it's Peter Bogdanovich. He should totally come back. — Can we lose the voiceover? I sure hope so.