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Faking It: Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Toast of the town: Billie Piper as Belle the secret call girl

Toast of the town: Billie Piper as Belle the secret call girl

Showtime’s perma-gloss new comedy Secret Diary of a Call Girl comes to us from the United Kingdom, whose Millennium Bridge features in the opening shot of the premiere episode as the petite, designer-suited Belle (Billie Piper) strolls toward us in slo-mo with all the icy confidence of a high-powered 21st-century businesswoman. No sad, plump streetwalker in ill-fitting leather and ripped fishnets yelling out “’ello, guv’na!” she: That’s old London hookerdom. The new English working girl is about looking tantalizingly unavailable, even if she is, well, by definition, so incredibly available.

(Click to enlarge)

Toast of the town: Billie Piper as Belle the secret call girl

(Click to enlarge)

Moment of awareness: Kate Getty in When I Knew

“The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a whore,” Belle’s snidely declarative (defensive?) narration informs us. Of course, we gathered that from the show’s title, but there are other things she needs us to know: She isn’t a family-abuse victim, she doesn’t have any children and she isn’t a drug addict, except for The West Wing. (Cute!) Plus, she’s always safe, always in control, careful not to mix business and private life, and she demands a steep fee. (Take that, doctors and lawyers!) Looking sexily sleepy and fetchingly sunlit in a centerfold pose on her bed as she wakes up in the morning, this apparently tireless advertisement for erotica blithely comments, “Escort, hooker, prostitute, whore, I don’t mind what you call me. That’s just semantics.”

Can I call her a thoroughly unbelievable and uninteresting character, then?

Based on the 2005 publication of the reportedly true autobiography of an anonymous high-end London prostitute, Secret Diary of a Call Girl is the kind of hotly lit, coldly stylized dreck that purports to be classy, high-minded softcore but is actually as witless and dreary as, well, paid-for jollies. Belle is such a fantasy version of a prostitute for both sexes — guys, you knew it, she loves sex! Gals, she digs her independence and has a separate, regular life in which she’s called Hannah ... like Hannah Montana! — that it’s never clear what’s supposed to be enlightening or amusing or even taboo-busting about her existence. The show is so intent on glamorously normalizing its heroine’s profession that the most it can work up in the way of conflict is a dip in sales from a negative Internet post, Belle’s madame warning that there’s a john out there passing fraudulent money — no! — and a sex-party episode in which Belle can’t seduce a favorite author she meets because she’s there with a client. Gotta dance with them what bought and paid for ya, Belle!

This isn’t to say that I expected a tabloid-sounding show with a title like Secret Diary of a Call Girl to render the horrors of trafficking or STDs or violent rape. Call yourself a comedy and I expect to laugh, but this series certainly raises the question of whether prostitution is inherently funny. Sex certainly can be. So can lots of sex. The gap between men and women too. Self-delusion surely is. So is stating the obvious — I laughed reading the boast in the production notes that the nudity-friendly, sex-themed series was “a ratings hit” in England. Shocker! But like the lives of coal miners or prisoners, prostitution has aspects of sadness, and it requires a deftly irreverent touch to locate the humor in portraying the gig as an outré kick. Piper certainly tries her best to make Belle/Hannah a blowjob-for-hire version of Carrie Bradshaw — the sexy, sharp, modern woman whose personal is also professional — but she’s hamstrung by writing that is both afraid of its real subject and too in awe of it. Belle may be a happy hooker, but it’s all too clear that the show is faking it.

When it comes to sexual awareness in the straight world, it’s often the kind of fumbling, world-altering slap to the consciousness that may be embarrassing or exciting or funny, but it’s at least generally accepted. For gays, that youthful recognition of where their attraction is leading them has too often been a signal to retreat, to protect, to fret over a perceived alienness, even when it’s simultaneously — of course — an eye-opening thrill. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary short When I Knew (inspired by Robert Trachtenberg’s book of the same title), airing next Wednesday on Cinemax, is a testimonial grab bag that asks gay men and women of seemingly every age, temperament, background and hairstyle for the story of when everything suddenly clicked, even if society indicated otherwise.

Of the guys interviewed, everything from the artistic musculature of an aching male back on a box of Doan’s pills and NBC’s Grizzly Adams to the sudden appearance of the first male teacher in a Wyoming boys’ school is a trigger. One woman talks of sudden jealousy when a close friend speaks of kissing a boy, another of the usually hetero-male-identified rite of hiding Playboy inside a comic book. The Playboy tale is funny until its teller, Karen Darcy, adds that the girls who caught her would maliciously call her “lezzie.”

Sometimes the recognition comes late enough in life to make emotional upheaval inevitable, as willed relationships suddenly come undone. It’s important to remember that when they knew isn’t the same as when they came out: That gap is where a lifetime of confusion and hurt can be needlessly fed. Gays and lesbians will surely get much out of the nostalgic charms — whether painful or funny — of When I Knew, but it’d be nice to see this modest, entertaining and undeniably affecting patchwork of reminiscing heads have a demystifying effect on fearful heteros who happen to catch the documentary as well. Then maybe the world will shift that much further, and a later film will feature formerly intolerant straights telling us when they knew gays weren’t the enemy.

SECRET DIARY OF A CALL GIRL | Mondays at 10:30 p.m., with repeats throughout the week

WHEN I KNEW | Cinemax | Wednesday, June 25, 10:30 p.m.