Secret Diary of a Call Girl: Season One

Secret Diary of a Call Girl: Season One

2.5 out of 52.5 out of 52.5 out of 52.5 out of 5 2.5

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Imagine a Sex and the City character with Carrie’s personality and Samantha’s sex drive and whose motivation isn’t “What will I talk about with my friends next?” but “What can’t I say to the friends I don’t have anyway?,” and you are halfway toward understanding Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Originally a British television show based on a blog and the subsequent book by anonymous sex worker Belle du Jour, the series is not Showtime’s idea, but let’s face it, Showtime virtually wills the comparison to Sex and the City onto its audiences; it can’t be ignored given the showy, quick pans of London tourist spots and the plucky blond lead. There will be no more Carrie and Big, but here’s a new girl to root for, and guess what? She can be downright nasty.

Actress Billie Piper graduates from the relative wholesomeness of her role on the BBC’s Doctor Who to Secret Diary‘s Belle/Hannah, a high-class escort whose various exploits inside London’s nightlife—combined with her frequent voiceovers and direct-camera addresses—turn the awkwardly named show into a how-to guide for prospective prostitutes. As Belle’s best friend Ben (Iddo Goldberg) succinctly puts it after spending a night on the job with her, “It’s been an education.” This British import continues a Showtime line of sexual and interpersonal exploration that began with Queer as Folk and followed with The L Word. The general issue constantly at stake here is the intersection of the personal and professional in Belle’s life—how to keep her clients satisfied while protecting herself and keeping her family in the dark. With Belle du Jour’s postings as its background, the show has a definite cache of apparent authenticity, and the writing’s directness inspires the mix of drama and comedy to which Showtime and HBO gravitate like comets shot out of orbit; the best joke in the series is the one played the straightest: “Asking your ex-boyfriend to take photos of you in your underwear so rich strangers can decide if the want to pay you to have sex. That’s all right, isn’t it?”

By combining these features, the show’s creator, Lucy Prebble, gives her mostly female creative team a fresh and promising foundation, treating a potentially controversial subject not with sensationalism but depth. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw didn’t spend as much time writing in the entirety of Sex and the City as Belle does working in Secret Diary‘s eight episodes. Piper is outstanding, bringing genuine sweetness to her role, though not without the naughtiness that separates paid cable from the rest of the dial. She neatly captures the inherent loneliness of the world’s oldest profession, as well as the superhero-like inability to have or trust in confidants (though, like Batman, she eventually can’t help herself). And in Belle’s monologues, Piper and Prebble offer something surprisingly new: a response. “What?” says Belle, after picking up a second beau one evening. As if weighed down by the collective audience’s judgment, she rationalizes, “I’ve always been a bit of a tart.”

Even this promising turn exposes the heart of Secret Diary‘s ultimate failing. After Belle heads upstairs to spend the night with the new man, she’s soon facing the camera, relating what to do when juggling work and, well, freelance. Admirable and enjoyable as Prebble and especially Piper’s efforts are, where’s the story? Each episode in Secret Diary is built on formula: a nifty one-liner sets up the occupational bullet-point that will be addressed over the next half-hour, be it the girlfriend experience, S&M, group sex, etc. Despite a wealth of possible dangerous scenarios (meeting friends on the job, meeting clients in real life), the only genuine, sustained conflict that arises in Belle’s life is introduced late in the season. And with the writers favoring their field-guide-to-prostitution approach, it is accepted and dispatched with stunning ease and speed. This is hour-long material forced into a 30-minute timeslot, though some of its plots are strung together—at times held up by—Piper’s silent, meaningful looks at the camera. And while sex can be a big motivator in general, it does not yet sustain this show. For Belle, the job is both honest and uncomplicated. More importantly, for the writers, it rarely puts her in harms way.

Showtime, Mondays, 10:30 p.m.
Billie Piper, Cherie Lunghi, Iddo Goldberg, Toyah Willcox, Stuart Organ