As Tripp Darling—the plutocratic patriarch on the respectably sordid new soap Dirty Sexy Money (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET)—Donald Sutherland wears a flowing leonine mane, robber-baron sideburns, and a moustache that seems to twirl itself. The actor last sported his trusty hambone in prime time on the short-lived Commander in Chief, appearing as a brazenly conniving congressman and making his threats sound like the seductions of a midnight DJ. The new role shares a certain oiliness of texture with the previous one, but the actor is playing things coyer and cagier these days, giving the impression of a feline purring from under a silken coat.
One dares say that both the hairdo and the performance contain some inkling of wit, a virtue not much in evidence on Dirty Sexy Money, unless you count the commercial bumpers that style the title's initials as D$M. That's a cute one, linking the lunatic escapism and merry tawdriness of this bauble with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If the joke were intentional, it would mark the show's closest approach to subtle humor.
Dirty Sexy Money imagines that Tripp and his brood of grown children command public attention on a level that rivals any Hearsts or Hiltons or Kennedys. They're tabloid-ready blue bloods with a talent for decadence. A couple of weeks ago, one of Tripp's sons, Patrick, having just launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate, hopped from a fund-raising fete into his limo, where he rendezvoused with his transsexual lover. The same party—held, in one of the season's weirder instances of product placement, at a Bulgari outlet—found daughter Juliet squaring off in a red-carpet catfight against fellow socialite Natalie Kimpton, her nemesis and the secret girlfriend of her wastrel twin brother, Jeremy.
Meanwhile, Tripp's other son, Brian, an ordained clergyman and practicing hypocrite, welcomed his bastard son into his wife's home by spinning a yarn about the child being a Swedish orphan. This leaves boozy daughter Karen, last seen signing a prenuptial agreement with her sponging pro-golfer fiance in the pilot and lately caught in a sex-tape scandal involving his caddy. All such hijinks play out in a way that's acutely self-aware but not remotely tongue-in-cheek. Dirty Sexy Money knows how cheesy it is and treats that knowledge as a license to push farce into a realm where it becomes undistinguishable from melodrama.
To keep all of the depraved ducks in a row, Tripp employs lawyer Nick George as a fixer and bagman, a conscience and confidante. Six Feet Under's Peter Krause plays the role with a sense of detachment that represents either the artistic choice of an actor playing it straight amid interminable clowning or the weary resignation of a dude who didn't know what he was getting into. Nick and the D$M audience are currently awaiting the emergence of shadowy zillionaire Simon Elder, about whom Nick's father—who preceded his son in the role of consigliere—was compiling a "dossier" when he expired in a mysterious plane crash. You've got to admire the zest with which Dirty Sexy Money tosses the word dossier around. It's as if the show is trying to prove, once and for all, that the rich are different from you and me, who just keep files.