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Television

Getting hooked on Showtime's appealing 'Call Girl'

Billie Piper plays a high-class London hooker named Belle Billie Piper plays a high-class London hooker named Belle (SHOWTIME VIA AP)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 16, 2008

There's something really telegenic about split lives - and I mean messy split lives, not the neat bifurcations of famous superheroes who are ordinary by day and brave by night. Especially at Showtime, TV writers are more eager than ever to milk the comic fallout and moral haziness of characters who do something rather unusual on the down low. Mild-mannered Miami police expert Dexter is in fact a vigilante killer, for example, while Nancy on "Weeds" is a kooky suburban mom secretly doing business as a pot dealer.

And, beginning tonight at 10:30 on Showtime's appealingly light "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," Hannah passes as a legal secretary, but she actually makes her living as a high-class London hooker named Belle. She has an "agent" - a polite version of a pimp - and she sees her wealthy Johns (and, in one episode, a Jane) in deluxe hotels and at her own apartment. But her best buddy, an ex-boyfriend named Ben, as well as her parents, have no idea she's earning over 100,000 pounds a year turning tricks. She's in the closet to them, right beside the sexy lingerie and that black-leather teddy.

"Secret Diary of a Call Girl" is based on an infamous blog - and a resulting book - by the pseudonymous London escort Belle de Jour (named after the Catherine Deneuve movie). The eight-episode first season has already aired in Britain, where, of course, it was controversial for having fun with a profession generally considered sexist and exploitive. And it will doubtless trigger ire here, since Hannah and "Call Girl" creator Lucy Prebble aren't interested in issues of victimization. This is the unapologetic story of one woman, not the story of an industry. In one of her comments to us, spoken through the fourth wall to the camera, Hannah strongly assures us that she does not fit the stereotype, that she's neither an addict nor an abuse survivor. About her career motives, she simply says, "I love sex," and "I love money."

The series is a comedy at heart, particularly in the way it blithely reveals the mundane mechanics of a hooker's life. We are privy to her clients's quirky needs (the moderately explicit sex scenes are played more for good-humored curiosity than for arousal) and we see the catty tensions between her and her agent, Stephanie, snidely played by Cherie Lunghi. The frank, matter-of-fact manner in which Belle talks about fetishes and unusual practices recalls the ways that "Sex and the City" giddily revealed a female point of view on male sexual behavior. And the show's brisk, mod-ish atmosphere (think "Darling" from 1965) and its gorgeous London locations lend a happy vitality.

But there is a valuable, if small, dramatic undercurrent to "Call Girl," as Hannah struggles with varying success to keep her work and private lives separate. The emotional strains of keeping her secret from Ben (Iddo Goldberg) grow across the eight episodes and lend the season an unexpected poignancy. As in Ricky Gervais's "Extras," the friendship between a man and a woman gradually emerges as the anchor of the story arc. Hannah is afraid of intimacy and the sameness of conventional lifestyles, which is why she loves being a hooker; and Ben represents a serious challenge to those fears.

The performers are likable all round, particularly British pop star Billie Piper as Hannah/Belle. She's believably in charge and strong-willed, but she lets a tad of Hannah's sorrow seep into her portrayal - when Hannah holds her sister's newborn in episode 2, for instance, and she seems lost for a quick second. Piper's in every scene, and still she leaves us wanting more at the end of the season - more of Hannah, and more of Belle.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Starring: Billie Piper, Cheri Lunghi, Iddo Goldberg

On: Showtime

Time: Tonight, 10:30-11

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