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It seems like just a few years ago that you heard loose talk about how Showtime was stepping up its game in developing its own original programming and very soon people would hardly remember having once thought of the network as  HBO's tagalong little brother with the wet hair and the high water pants. But those new original Showtime series that didn't quietly die after their first season are showing their age already. (This is especially sad in the case of Californication, because even in its first episodes, that show came on like a fifty-year-old stockbroker with a combover bragging to the lithe young things at Burning Man about his wild side.) I don't know if I'd call Secret Diary of a Call Girl the worst of Showtime's trademark stable of girls-gone-wild shows; the rich, pungent aroma of the last couple of seasons of Weeds could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon. But the show, whose season finale probably draws the curtain on four short seasons of eight shortish episodes apiece, did degenerate farther in less time than just about any once-promising show in memory.

For one thing, there was a point, long ago, when at least the title made sense. That was before the heroine, Hannah (Billie Piper), a London lass who plies her trade under the nom de whore Belle de Jour, published her memoirs, and the book did well enough to render the diary a non-secret. The show is "based" on a blog by a pseudonymous writer who worked as a prostitute for fourteen months while studying for her master's. When her writing was first collected between hard covers, it bore the title The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, which would be more accurate for this show than Secret Diary of a Call Girl but sounds less Red Shoes Diaries. (The author, Dr Brooke Magnanti, was unmasked in 2009, a couple of years after the show premiered.) In addition to her writing, the actual Belle de Jour now works as a research scientist. Although her book is supposed to have been a scandalous success, the TV Belle is still working as a whore, which makes her one of the few people in the modern age who are still doing what they wrote a bestselling book about having done. It's as if Anthony Bourdain told the Travel Channel to take a hike because they couldn't adjust their production schedule to fit his career as a line cook.


Previous seasons of Secret Diary at least had some amusing supporting characters and narrative cross-currents. The final season seemed to clear away most of that so the show could really sink its teeth into the deep subject of what makes a whore a whore, and—after Hannah threw a lasso around the heart of her long-suffering, lovesick sidekick Ben—the question of whether a career as a prostitute makes it impossible to maintain a serious love relationship during one's off hours. I'm not sure if this question ever had any juice to it at all, it's so played out. In movies and TV, it's been grappled with by everyone from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Irma la Douce and Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute to Max Gail and a string of special guest hookers on Barney Miller to Bulle Ogier and Gérard Depardieu in Maîtresse. (Ever see that one? In my favorite scene, Ogier, playing a dominatrix, straps a naked client down in her basement, nails his dick to a block of wood, and then tells him, in an insinuatingly menacing tone, that she's going to leave him alone for a while to think about it, as if some time alone to work on his issues wasn't just what he needed. I'd think that if the idea was to hurt somebody, you'd tie him up, nail his dick to a block of wood, and then dump him on his in-laws' front lawn at midday.) Belle and Ben contribute nothing new to the discussion, but then Ben has never contributed much to the show except for those who wanted a chance to take a bathroom break without hitting "PAUSE" on the remote.

Why is Hannah, who's meant to be smart, educated, and talented, even if it seems a stretch that she'd be raiding Bunuel movies for a name for her professional alter ego, still selling her body at the end of the series? "I know exactly who I am," she says in the finale, and it's hard to tell whether she sounds unconvincing because the show wants to make the point that she doesn't really know or  because Billie Piper has exhausted the possibilities of the character and has one eye on the clock. (Piper has generally been the best thing about the show, but as the scripts have gotten rickety and wormier and the character of Hannah/Belle has begun to erode, she's resorted to depending more and more on mugging and hairstyle changes. After the credits of the finale, someone has tacked on a blooper reel, including a number of shots of Piper pulling goofy faces. They don't look much goofier than some of the ones that made the final cut.) And as the show has struggled, in its dying days, to come up with a serious insight on which it could go out, the cute jokiness it keeps falling back on—the  gimmicky editing and visual gags that seem meant to summon up fond memories of Trainspotting but are closer to Laugh-In, the sound effects and musical shtick such as people furiously copulating to the William Tell Overture—have become more annoying than ever. (I don't know exactly who's been in charge of making sure that Secret Diary is the most whimsically scored show on TV, but I predict that in the next life, he winds up manning a radio booth in Hell, with a music library that consists of the bonus cuts from the CD reissues of the Cowsills, the Shaggs, and the Starland Vocal Band, with Steve Zahn's character from Treme as his Baba Booey.)


The most interesting moment in this past season came when Hannah went to New York to see a reading of a play based on her book. She didn't like it. She felt that the character based on her came across as "cheap" and "shallow" and "a bit stupid", and that the show just used her material as an excuse to titillate the men in the audience; the actress playing her replied that she didn't get it, that her interpretation of her character was that she was "a modern woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it." It was a very weird, hard to read scene, because Hannah was accurately describing herself as she was coming across in the show by that point, while the actress, who was clearly meant to be fatuous and self-justifying, was using exactly the same kind of gaseous language that the show and its fans have used to explain why Hannah is a modern heroine.

In the end, she expresses her heroism by rejecting both the nice guy she loves who can't deal with her way of making a living, and the bad boy who can deal with it all too well, who excites her but whom she does not love. She is devoted both to her work and to pure romance, and if the two can't co-exist, she'll cut the latter out of her life before she'll compromise. (At this point, the ants-in-your-pants editing stops and the music is stripped down to one finger morosely plunking away at a piano, to help one savor the beautiful sadness of it all.) This may be meant to be noble, or it may just be a cliffhanger: even if the series really is over now, threats have been made to turn it into a movie. In a recent online review of Chester Brown's "comic-strip memoir about being a john", Paying for It, R. Fiore wrote that "I do not frequent prostitutes because of my deep moral conviction that it costs too much." Movie tickets aren't getting any cheaper, either.