Courteney Cox in Dirt

What did it take to bring Friends‘ Courteney Cox back to series television? A show featuring scintillating stories of celebrity scandal, a schizophrenic paparazzo with a cat-shrine darkroom, and a whole lot of mess that would never fly with Monica Geller. And what will it take to make viewers tune in to the Jan. 2 premiere of Cox’s new FX series, Dirt? Reread the above, then add a sexy cast, an insider’s look at Hollywood, and the opportunity to see Cox in a whole new light.

The character that will surely scuff the sitcom star’s wholesome image is Dirt‘s manipulative, take-no-prisoners tabloid editor Lucy Spiller, who Cox describes kindly as a “pretty ruthless, Type A personality.” Ruling over the chaotic newsroom of Drrt magazine, Lucy is intimidating, cold and, most times, a straight-up bitch — but just when it seems she has no heart, go-to “pap” Don Konkey turns up. During a recent visit to the Dirt set at Paramount Studios, series creator Matthew Carnahan explained that when executive producers Cox and husband David Arquette approached him to write the series, he realized that he already had Don in mind. “At the time, I was really obsessed with a piece I had heard on NPR about schizophrenia,” he says. “It was [about] a group of functional schizophrenics [who] had teamed up with a virtual reality game designer and designed a virtual experience of what it’s like to be schizophrenic. That piece and that experience really shocked and moved me, so I came up with this world that’s driven by Lucy Spiller … and her old friend and henchman Don Konkey, who happens to be schizophrenic.” As the series’ creation progressed, Carnahan discovered something wonderful. “It ended up being an interesting way to look at celebrity culture … through her eyes and his hallucinations.”

The interaction between Lucy and Don, played by the incredible Ian Hart, consistently manages to turn the soulless world of gossip grabbing on its head — even if that interaction takes place while Don stakes out the home of professional basketball player Prince Tyreese, whose affinity for sexual acrobatics will make you blush.

Joining Mr. Basketball on the scandal end of Drrt‘s cameras is young actor Holt McLaren. With a brooding slouch and Sean Penn good looks, newcomer Josh Stewart gives Holt a combination of rage, optimism and self-torment that commands the screen. Desperate to regain the fast-fading buzz of his breakthrough role, Holt is tempted by a devil-brokered deal that carries a hefty price.

Having dealt with the paparazzi for years, both herself and through good friend Jennifer Aniston, Cox has fostered a realistic outlook on society’s insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip. “Mostly, I’m OK with it … I think,” she laughs. “There’s always paparazzi on Sunset, waiting for whoever to come down the hill, and they follow you … every day.”

Ironically, it was that constant presence that first sparked the concept of Dirt. Tea Mann, the head of development at Cox and Arquette’s Coquette Productions, was stunned by the paparazzi frenzy that surrounded the actress when she was pregnant, and proposed the idea of doing a show about the ever-present photographers. Cox loved the idea, but wondered what Aniston, one of the paps’ favorite targets, would think about it. “I had her read the script, and she thought it was great.” Cox says. “I figured that if, of all people, she was OK with it, everyone would be.”

What could’ve been an outlet for revenge on the people who harass her on a daily basis ended up being nothing of the sort. After all, Cox explains, there would really be no point. “This is absolutely no revenge on the tabloid media. This is a salacious, wonderful drama. That’s all it is. Besides, there’s no way to really pay back the paparazzi.”

Taking an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude, Cox turned her dysfunctional relationship with the paps into research. When Arquette got a particularly pushy photographer kicked out of Disney World for following the couple, Cox took a different action. “I came up to him and said, ‘Look, you can stay in the part, but I need your phone number, and I want to do some research for our show with you.” With inside information like that, the show can’t go wrong.

Dirt doesn’t answer the resulting quandary of whether the real villain in Hollywood is the tabloid or the publicity-hungry celebrity — an omission that leads us to one last question: “Why wouldn’t you want to dig in and get Dirty?”