Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Showtime, Mondays at 10:30 p.m. ET) is an import of a British series based on the 2006 book Belle de Jour, which is based on a blog that takes its name from the 1928 Joseph Kessel novel that Luis Buñuel adapted, in 1967, into what is more or less the best film ever made. Most of the similarities between Catherine Deneuve's Séverine in the blissfully jarring movie and Billie Piper's Hannah in this smooth confection are either superficial or obvious: Both choose Belle as a nom de boudoir, both abhor the humdrum, and both seek escape from the malaise weighing down their well-tousled heads.
But whereas Séverine, a naive in her house of ill repute, is a frigid doctor's wife—an Emma Bovary hooked on masochism rather than shopping—Hannah is a strict professional. "The first thing you should know about me is that I'm a whore," she told the camera in her steadfastly frank and sassy way on Monday night. She went on to add that a savvy lady of the day or night always heads out dressed in a business suit. "Be fabulous but forgettable," she said. Never mind that a few minutes later we saw her flouting this principle fantastically: Belle, with her diamond-shaped face and what the Emperors' Club VIP might call a five-diamond price tag, perched at a hotel bar in a silver dress that gaped past the bottom of her sternum and clung like Saran wrap everywhere else.
Thus, Secret Diary gets no points for consistency. None for realism, either, with that same opening monologue brushing aside questions of past abuse and addiction as quickly as Hannah sweeps her dirty-blond bangs out of her frank eyes. That is the show's outlook in a nutshell. Everything is glossy and glassy and tantalizingly slinky, with the real and metaphoric shadows plentiful but highly attractive. Slut Machine, one of the gals over at Jezebel, sees this attitude as so much glamorized bunk: "Call Girl is to hooking what Sex and the City is to single women: A fantasy that will have a bunch of whores saying they relate." Going further, you could say that Call Girl is Sex and the City, an apparatus for converting anxieties about modern mating and angst about careers into cracked fantasies of female empowerment.
Two weeks from now, Hannah, booked for an overnight session with one client, picks another up at the bar, and the show mines some gentle bedroom farce from her attempt to shuttle between the two. First compare this plot sequence with the dinner party scene in Mrs. Doubtfire, then wonder whether it works better as an analogy for juggling multiple boyfriends or incompatible job responsibilities. One week hence, she wears a Louise Brooks wig, ostrich feathers, and no underwear out for a date at a very fancy sex club—only to be called away to a maternity suite when her sister delivers a baby. Again, is this about the baby lust of a single woman supposedly proud of her singlehood? Or a (pretty decent) way to pull viewers into Hannah's head by reminding them of their own clashing responsibilities to fun, work, and family?
The real drag of Hannah's being called away from the party is that she does not get a chance to make it with a fellow orgyist, a novelist she admires. Bummer. The incident does develop a theme from the debut episode. There, Hannah found herself, for once, actually attracted to her client rather than the money or the challenge he provided. The man was shy, kind, cute, posh—and she pushed him away, scared of revealing her real self, a scenario that sounds one part plausible and two parts a fairy tale of the Pretty Woman school. But my main gripe is that the hot client, like the unfinished novelist, then disappears from the series. Bummer! Secret Diary of a Call Girl is a series of sketches, and its eight episodes do not trace an arc or advance a narrative. While such a structure might be true to the series' bloggy origins—and, for that matter, to the fragmented schedule and fractured consciousness of some prostitutes—it denies the possibilities of climax. Triple bummer.