In the opening of Courteney Cox's seductive new FX series, the actress is seen as a red satin-swathed colossus dominating the Hollywood landscape.

In fact, Cox's beautiful, even beatific Lucy Spiller is wallowing in the gutter as the editor of tabloid magazines whose mission is reflected in the show's title: "Dirt."

Turns out, though, Lucy has company: The stars and executives who publicly scorn her include those who also use her. She rubs that in a producer's face in the debut episode, 10 p.m. EST Tuesday, Jan. 2.

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"You and all your Hollywood pals read my magazines and secretly love them," she purrs. "And as much as you all hate to admit it, you need me."

The series is a surprise in several ways. It deftly layers glamour's standard trappings over a surreal heart of darkness — Lucy's favorite paparazzo is schizophrenic, and we see his pained hallucinations as he pains his celebrity targets.

The photog, Don Konkey, is brilliantly played by English actor Ian Hart, who immediately establishes himself as one of the best things on TV this season.

"Dirt" also allows Cox, 42, to effectively vanquish her "Friends" character of Monica, which made her one of America's sitcom sweethearts, and slither into the driven Lucy, who struggles with her own unstable psyche.

Then there's the show's layered depiction of the relationship between the entertainment industry and the tabloids — this from an actress who has been the uncomfortable object of celebrity feeding frenzies.

Cox isn't just going along for the ride: "Dirt" is from the production company she runs with her husband, David Arquette, 35. The two are executive producers with series creator Matthew Carnahan and writer Joel Fields.

"It all stemmed from when I was pregnant," Cox said in a phone interview, efficiently conducted while she exercised on an elliptical machine. "The paparazzi was really hounding me ... and some really crazy stuff happened. They got in my face more than anything I experienced before."

The much-hyped end of "Friends" in 2004 added to the madness, which Cox said included car chases in which she was surrounded by photographers and feeling especially vulnerable because she was expecting (daughter Coco is now 2 1/2).

"The head of development at our company saw what I was going through ... and had the foresight to know it would make an interesting show," Cox said.

It was a project she intended only to produce. Then FX Networks President John Landgraf suggested reworking the concept, originally centered on shooter Konkey and other men, to include a woman editor.

"Matthew Carnahan took the seed of an idea and made the most unexpected characters, the richest characters," Cox said. "I thought, wow, if I can't play Don Konkey, which is one of the all-time great roles, I really want to play Lucy.

"I called Landgraf and said, 'I love this. I want to be in this.' It's the easiest job I've ever gotten," she said.

In the first episode, Lucy and henchman Konkey induce struggling actor Holt McLaren (Josh Stewart) to betray both his girlfriend, a big-name actress (Laura Allen), and her troubled pal. The result is rewards for Holt, tragedy for others.

Another plot line features athlete-turned-actor Rick Fox playing a married basketball player photographed in an adventurous sexual encounter with a faux groupie, who's paid by Konkey for her performance.

Does Cox find it difficult to approach the tabloid world with any degree of understanding, if not sympathy?

"I feel like there's two sides to everything," she said. "Also, it's television. You love to hate characters — that's always a fun thing — but you also have to have something you can hold on to, to be able to relate to them."

"We're not really trying to take anybody down," Cox added.

Do she and other actors acknowledge that such publications are part of the publicity machine?

"Well, I accept it," she said. But it's tougher on other celebrities, she said, such as former "Friends" co-star Jennifer Aniston, whose romances (Brad Pitt, Vince Vaughn) became tabloid obsessions.

"Jennifer is hounded every single day, poor girl. She's coping with it but she cannot get a break," Cox said. For actors in that position, "it can be very painful."

"As far as David and I, there's nothing that dramatic that's happening, unless I get pregnant again. I get followed, get my picture taken and maybe I'll be in a tabloid saying, `She didn't wear that (outfit) well. She looked terrible.' I don't really care."

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