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TELEVISION REVIEWS

'Call Girl's' secrets not so scandalous

Showtime's series about the life of a prostitute is surprisingly boring.

June 16, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

If I had known prostitution was so much fun, I certainly wouldn't be wasting my billable hours writing television reviews.

Sure, I'm the mother of three and all that entails, but as Belle, the saucy lead of Showtime's new "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" remarks, there are as many different sorts of prostitutes as there are people. So why not throw a leather corset in a bag and zip off to sunny old London, where an all-nighter involving some safe vanilla sex with a perfectly lovely young man would net me three grand, American? Forty percent goes to my madam, but still, what a relief not to worry about the death of newspapers -- the only issue Belle has with the Internet is making sure the photo in her ad is pixilated enough so that her folks won't recognize her.

The happy high-priced call girl; if she didn't exist, we'd have to invent her. Which we do, one way or the other, over and over again -- "Call Girl" premieres so close on the heels of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, you have to wonder if Showtime wasn't somehow involved. It seems pointless to argue that prostitution as an enjoyable alternate career choice is a myth, or at least the very rare exception. Those who do wind up sounding shrill, and anyway, "Call Girl's" greatest flaw is not that it's exploitative but that it's surprisingly dull.

Meet Belle (Billie Piper), a lovely and smart (A-levels all around) young woman who sells her body to strangers because she loves sex and money. Now there's a motivational desire most television execs can understand.

A British import loosely based on the blog and subsequent book of a London prostitute, "Call Girl" is a blatant attempt to re-create the frisson and success of "Sex and the City" down to the knowing-girlfriend voice-over. Indeed, as Hannah by day, Belle by night, Piper gives us a sassy cross between Carrie and Samantha. If either of those characters had been British. Or hookers.

If anyone can breathe new life into the world's oldest stereotype, it's Piper, last seen in "Doctor Who." With that luscious angular face and knowing sidelong glance, her Belle is quite convincing, to us and we suspect herself, as she explains not only the allure of prostitution but also its rules and foibles. And she fits in with the Showtime family, nicely filling the space between Mary-Louise Parker's neurotic yet lovable pot mom and Michael C. Hall's sociopathic yet lovable serial killer. Indeed, it's easy to imagine a chance encounter between Belle and "Californication's" Hank Moody, should David Duchovny cross the pond any time soon.

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Is this a date?

Still, there are problems that even Piper cannot overcome, and most of them involve tedium. There is, of course, much sex involved in "Call Girl." But because Belle has reassured us that she really likes sex, the encounters seem more like dates than business transactions, which manages to leech both eroticism and humanity from the scenes. We are left with nothing much to think about beyond the logistics: buttocks but no genitalia, bare breasts in some scenes but not others and, of course, the art of well-mimed fellatio.

It may be because I'm over 40 and have been married twice, but there is only so much well-mimed fellatio I'm prepared to endure.

Meanwhile, creator Lucy Prebble seems to have missed the point of "Sex and the City" -- it was all about the friendships.

Poor old Belle has only one, with a former boyfriend who for at least half of the season doesn't know what she does for a living. Despite all those A-levels, she seems to have no outside interests (not even shoes!) or even mild curiosity about the world around her. When she's not having sex or getting ready to have sex, she tends to lie around moodily, which is boring to watch and leads the viewer to fret about her mental health. The term "sex addiction" does come to mind.

There is tension, of course, between her Hannah life and her Belle life, but it's hard to muster sympathy for a woman who says she has chosen her job because she is basically lazy. Which is strange in itself; prostitution has never struck me as a profession for the idle.

There are, many argue, great social benefits to prostitution, and I am sure some escorts feel they have a calling, are providing a necessary service. If only Belle were one of them.

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Shallow existence

With her rules and lists, her dos and don'ts, her unexamined aversion to love and woefully neglected inner life, Belle is instead a walking multimedia platform: part magazine article, part blog, part late-night cable porn; she is all saucy surface and very little depth.

You could view "Call Girl" as a summer-beach-read of a show or you could consider it yet another attempt to glamorize what remains an unregulated and dangerous industry. Either way, it would help if, somewhere between Hannah and Belle, an actual woman stopped miming fellatio and did something interesting for a minute or two.

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mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

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'Secret Diary of a Call Girl'

Where: Showtime

When: 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-MA-SLD (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for sex, coarse language and suggestive dialogue)

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