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Belle of the Ball: Showtime's "Secret Diary of a Call Girl"

If you remember Billie Piper best from her role as Rose Tyler, the brash companion to the Doctor on BBC's Doctor Who reinvention, her new series may be quite an eye-opener.

Piper stars in Showtime's delicious new import Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which is itself based a blog and book created by the pseudonymous Belle de Jour. The ITV2 series, written by Lucy Prebble, revolves around a twenty-something Londoner named Hannah who poses as a legal secretary to throw off the scent from her friends and family that she's actually a high priced call girl who goes by the name of (you guessed it!) Belle.

Lest you think that this is a depressing look at one woman's descent into hell, complete with--as Hannah puts it--drug addiction, child support, and other unsavory motivations to enter the sex trade, think again. Hannah claims that she likes her job, loves sex and money (though one has to wonder which takes precedence) and even has an agent, Stephanie (played by Cherie Lunghi) who vets clients for her (in exchange for a forty percent cut).

Instead, Secret Diary of a Call Girl sets up the two competing worlds in Hannah's life: her personal life as Hannah in which she pals around with friends--including Iddo Goldberg as Ben, her ex-boyfriend with whom she still shares a little more than a spark in their game of "spoiled little rich girl"--and visits her shrill sister in hospital after she's had a baby, rolling a cigarette for her suspicious father... and her professional life as Belle, in which she entertains clients under a strict set of rules that are as insightful as they are humorous (wearing no perfume and only men's deodorant so that her clients don't smell "like a woman" after their trysts, not drinking while on the job, having a codeword which which to check in with the agency).

Belle is a canny seductress, instantly weighing up her client's expectations, backstories, and fantasies to produce the ultimate experience for them. As suspected, not all of her clients are young and beautiful, but Belle often has a better time with the clients that she doesn't "have to be herself" with. If that's not a Carrie Bradshaw-like revelation about her own damaged psyche, I don't know what is.

So what happens when the two spheres of Hannah's identity meet? That's just the plot of Secret Diary of a Call Girl's first episode when Belle meets a new client, a twenty-something regular guy who wants her to wear no makeup and jeans, with whom Hannah falls for, even revealing her real name and sleeping with him in her "personal" room rather than the luxe bedroom she reserves for her clients. In the second episode, she ditches a client at an adult invitation-only party to go home with her favorite author and his wife but ends up stepping out on them as well when she learns that her sister has given birth.

It's these actions that open up and expand the greater narrative dimensions of this series. While the subject matter is obviously risque (though not illegal, as prostitution is not criminalized in the UK), Secret Diary of a Call Girl isn't just about the sexual encounters between Belle and her clients; rather, it's an exploration of the dual nature that Hannah/Belle exhibits. What psychologically makes a smart girl like Hannah enter the sex trade and continue to find herself fulfilled by it? Besides, I mean, for the lure of sex, power, and cash... and, as Hannah puts it, an innate laziness. And what will happen when, inevitably, her middle-class family finds out about how Hannah is really paying the bills?

At the end of the day (or night), Secret Diary of a Call Girl is filled with a hell of a lot more humor than I expected. Piper is absolutely incandescent in a role that challenges her to push deeper than she did as Rose Tyler and has the opportunity with Hannah/Belle to play two very different roles in the space of a single half-hour. I've already had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes of Secret Diary and cannot wait to sit down and watch the next six episodes that were provided for review. It's brash, bold, and witty, much like the titular character herself, and by the second episode, I've already fallen under its wicked charms.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl will pair exceptionally well with Showtime's Weeds and with the recent order for the Toni Collette-led United States of Tara (and the untitled Edie Falco dark comedy pilot), Showtime is well on its way to becoming a destination for subversive and intelligent female-centric comedies. Both Hannah and Belle would definitely approve of that.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl premieres Monday, June 16th at 10:30 pm on Showtime.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Price is Right Million Dollar Spectacular (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC; 8-9:30 pm); America's Next Top Model (CW); Wife Swap (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
Criminal Minds (CBS); Celebrity Circus (NBC; 9:30-11 pm); Farmer Wants a Wife (CW); Supernanny (ABC)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: MI-5 on BBC America.

If you missed MI-5 (aka Spooks) when it aired on A&E a few years back, you can catch it tonight on BBC America. On tonight's installment ("Road Trip"), Adam goes on an undercover assignment to intercept a terrorist who is headed towards London in order to convince him to abandon his plot.

10 pm: Top Chef on Bravo.

On tonight's season finale ("Finale"), this is it: the final showdown between Richard, Stephanie, and (ick) Lisa for the title of Top Chef. Who will be crowned the winner (please be Richard or Stephanie) and who will go home empty-handed? Find out tonight!


Anonymous said…
I've seen all 8 episodes and, while I enjoyed them a lot, the series misses the mark a bit. There are lots of opportunities to delve deeper into Hannah/Belle's world, but the episodes are not particularly serialized and left something to be desired. Also, her relationship with Ben isn't even slightly believable or realistic. That being said, though, I watched the episodes in a marathon session, so clearly they're doing something right as I couldn't stop watching.

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