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'Dirty Sexy Money'
Billy Baldwin (above, with Candis Cayne) stars as one of the rich, spoiled Darling clan, which hires a lawyer, played by Peter Krause, to keep them out of trouble. (ABC/LORENZO BEVILAQUA)
Fall TV Big Night

A family affair of dysfunction and wacky excess

ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" wins the prize for best title of the fall. Those three words shoved together instantly capture all the cynicism, dark humor, and Manhattan tabloid glamour that run fabulously amok on this new series. They openly mock such bromides as "Love of money is the root of all evil" and "Money can't buy love." Pungent and gritty, the phrase "Dirty Sexy Money" cuts right to the chase.

And what an entertaining chase it is. The series, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, is one of the fall highlights, a nighttime soap opera with a broad, irresistibly culty sense of humor. While "Dirty Sexy Money" certainly has dramatic tones, most notably when star Peter Krause is on screen, it is also a kissing cousin to a farcical sitcom about yet another absurd and absurdly wealthy family - "Arrested Development." The Darlings of New York are dissolute, narcissistic, self-destructive, duplicitous, miserable, and, ultimately, hysterical.

Krause, from "Six Feet Under," is well-cast as do-good lawyer Nick George, whose father was the lawyer and consiglieri to patriarch Tripp Darling (Donald Sutherland). When Nick's father disappears in a suspicious plane crash, Nick is reluctantly lured into the Darling fold with the promise of $10 million a year to donate to charity. It's a Faustian deal, of course, and Nick will need to sully his ideals to protect the Darlings from the law and from themselves. That gives Krause the chance to smolder with caustic anger, something he did so well on "Six Feet Under." Every time Nick addresses his new boss, Krause spits out the name "Tripp" as if he's talking about a "bad trip."

But the centerpiece of the show is the Darling clan, who keep New York's paparazzi - and Nick - plenty busy. Where to begin? Patrick (William Baldwin) is the state attorney general, and he's pondering a run for Senate. But he's having a problematic extramarital affair with a transsexual who, as Glenn Close uttered in "Fatal Attraction," won't be ignored. Baldwin, whose real-life family is something of a tabloid magnet, plays Patrick with a hint of the dry humor his brother Alec brings to "30 Rock." Another comic bonus regarding the Patrick storyline: an oddball cameo appearance by Dan Rather, who presses Patrick about his intentions to run for Senate.

Brian Darling (Glenn Fitzgerald) is a priest with serious anger issues and an illegitimate son. Jeremy (Seth Gabel) and Juliet (Samaire Armstrong) are troubled twins - he's a pretty boy with a drug problem, she's a Paris Hilton-like celebutante who's having a feud with an air-headed actress. And then there's Karen (Natalie Zea), a hard-drinking multiple divorcee with a thing for Nick, who, by the way, is the married father of one. Nick and Karen dated as teens - "Nick deflowered me," she announces to her latest fiance - and she's clearly not finished with him.

All of the Darlings, including Jill Clayburgh's icy matriarch, Letitia, expect Nick to bail them out, and his cellphone never stops ringing, much to the dismay of his wife, Lisa (Zoe McLellan). In one of the show's little ongoing jokes, each Darling has his or her own ring tone - Juliet's is Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl," Karen's is Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." The show strains a bit to convince us that Nick would actually stay in business with these needy, immoral people, not least of all because Father Brian so thoroughly despises him, referring to Nick as "a glorified parasite." But if you can take that leap, the Darling amusement park ride will sweep you up.

Sutherland is, as always, a treat. He plays Tripp with a nice-guy mien that will surely dissolve in time, particularly as Nick persists in investigating the crash that killed his father.

Sutherland seems to relish the role, for instance during the sly scene in which Tripp tries to persuade Nick to work for him, mentioning that he pursued, but then decided not to hire, Bill Clinton. And Sutherland gives us a preview of Tripp's darker side when he meets with his children, a big fat sneer on his lips at their waywardness. In those juicy moments, "Dirty Sexy" is right on the money.

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Dirty Sexy Money

Starring: Peter Krause, Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, William Baldwin, Samaire Armstrong, Glenn Fitzgerald, Seth Gabel, Natalie Zea

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11