'Diary' dresses her up, but a pro is a pro

June 16, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

Having trouble making ends meet?

Who isn't in these troubled economic times?

And so tonight comes Showtime with a new comedy series showing a way to pay the bills and have a glamorous life as well - even if you are as "lazy" as Belle (Billie Piper), the call girl protagonist in Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

The cable series debuts right after the fourth season premiere of Weeds, which stars Mary-Louise Parker as a soccer mom who takes to selling marijuana as a way of maintaining her family's suburban standard of living after her husband dies. If the zeitgeist can support one show about a middle-class woman doing just a little bit more than the law will allow - to quote the Dukes of Hazzard theme song - why not two?

Well, here's one reason: Piper (Dr. Who) is no Mary-Louise Parker (Angels in America). From the opening moments of Weeds, Parker made you believe in her character, Nancy Botwin, and care about her dilemma even if you didn't agree with the choices she made.

Perhaps Piper will grow into becoming as compelling an actress as Parker. But right now as Belle, what Piper seems to do best is runway-strut down London streets in sexy outfits - and take those outfits off and engage in acts of graphic sex with her clients. The variations Belle and her clients explore are the stuff that network TV programmers cannot even suggest. Let's not be hypocrites, like HBO's Real Sex: This is premium cable as soft-core porn.

In fairness, maybe Piper should not be blamed for a plot that mainly takes her from trick to trick, but that is all we have to judge her on in Secret Diary.

The only hint of dramatic tension involves Belle occasionally having to juggle her professional and personal lives. To her parents, siblings and a best friend named Ben (Iddo Goldberg), she is Hannah, a legal secretary who often works late and is paid very well. I explain the Hannah business and her relationship to Ben only because they are anything but clear from the writing in the pilot.

Here's another reason Secret Diary should not be confused with Weeds. Admittedly, it takes some moral jujitsu to make you feel good about rooting for a woman who sells drugs, but at least Weeds doesn't glamorize what Nancy Botwin does. Soft-peddle the consequences, yes - but not glamorize drug dealing.

Secret Diary is a nonstop glamorization of prostitution. Belle is portrayed and presented as a London version of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in Sex and the City - except she gets paid lots of money for having sex with men.

Belle even addresses viewers in voice-over the way Carrie did in the celebrated HBO series. In Belle's case, it is to constantly enumerate and explain the "rules" of the "high-class" escort service for which she works. Her life and career are all about exclusivity, discerning taste and high-class behavior, according to Belle.

Listening to her describe the operation forwhich she works in London, you can't help but think of the fantasy realm suggested by Emperors Club VIP, the real-life American escort service that helped bring an end to Eliot Spitzer's career as governor of New York in March. Only emperors and VIPs allowed, indeed.

Belle's inflated language about "high-class" sex and savvy business practices also calls to mind the way Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the DC Madam, used to describe her operation. Ditto for Brandy Britton, the former University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor, who worked for her. The two also spoke of prostitution as an act of empowerment for women, a theme stressed not only onscreen in Secret Diary, but also in the Showtime publicity materials highlighting the fact that all the writers are women.

Forgive this cold splash of social reality, but both Palfrey and Britton committed suicide. That's the kind of story line you won't see explored in Showtime's caviar-kisses and champagne-baths version of prostitution tonight.

But maybe it's just me. Perhaps you have to be an emperor or VIP to truly appreciate this kind of show.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Listen to David Zurawik discuss Showtime's Secret Diary of a Call Girl at baltimoresun.com/

zurawik

ON TV

Secret Diary of a Call Girl debuts at 10:30 tonight on Showtime.

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