Monday, October 29, 2012

Secret Diary of a Call Girl Overview: Series 01

Melodramatic Mondays

To the public, Hannah Baxter leads a perfectly normal life, but behind closed doors she becomes Belle de Jour, a high-class escort with an extensive list of clients and a reputation to maintain. Determined to keep her activities secret from friends and family, Hannah must balance her social life with Belle's nightlife without arousing suspicion.

The review for "Rough in the Diamond" can be read here.

Based on real experiences as published in the Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, Secret Diary of a Call Girl depicts life through the eyes of Hannah (Billie Piper,) who stumbled into the lifestyle on accident and chose to go further still due to her enjoyment of sex. Criticisms of objectification of women and glamorization of prostitution arose almost immediately, though defendants also argued that, as in any occupation, there are positives and negatives. Where most media chooses to focus on the negatives to the escort business, Secret Diary instead chose to comment on the positive experiences, so as to maintain a realistic narrative wherein Hannah would choose to continue her work. Hints toward the more dangerous aspects of her work were made as the series progressed, but the focus remained almost entirely on the characters themselves.

Hannah/Belle has an uncanny ability to put others at ease, sensing what makes them uncomfortable and finding an easy solution to bypass their nerves and connect with them. Her understanding of how people react in certain situations allows her to both blend into a crowd and stand out on her own depending on the needs of the situation. What's most interesting about her as a character is that, as Belle, she's capable of empathizing with almost anyone, assessing their needs and desires and delivering exactly what they're looking for, but as Hannah she's often incapable of the same. Hannah is so focused on keeping her life as Belle a secret that she allows it to invade her personal life, cutting her off from the people that matter most to her. Her inability to relate to her family and friends feeds into her desire to connect to her clients, if only to feel close to someone who won't judge her for the way she chooses to live.

The effort that Hannah goes to in order to maintain her lifestyle as Belle is simply amazing; her beauty regiment is incredibly detailed, involving specific work out routines and a surplus of items she uses repeatedly. This aspect easily could have been overlooked, leaving the viewer to assume that, like an average woman, she took these measures only when she felt she needed to, but instead most of Hannah/Belle's actions are preventative. The writers also throw in a lot of smaller details that really flesh out how much thought Hannah has given to her routine, such as her using men's deodorants so that her clients will not arouse suspicion from their wives on their return home.

The show runners really wasted an opportunity in Lewis' (Kevin Doyle) rage and potential reprisal. Hannah/Belle's interactions with him were the first time she was seen to be out of control of the situation and the first instance wherein she appeared frightened for her safety. It would have been interesting to see a take on the negative side of things, having her, perhaps, trapped in her bathroom without a way to contact anyone for help as he continued his threats to her on the other side of the door. The criticisms of glorifying the lifestyle might have subsided slightly had the character faced any real danger, and it also would have been a good example of the evil posed by any potential client. The fallout from this event would have had an effect on every major character, and her brief hiatus from her work, and later return to it, would have carried much more weight had this story been followed up on.

While the series was designed to provide a glimpse of Hannah's life both as herself and as Belle, most of the scenes involving Hannah had her either preparing for, or talking about, whatever plans she had made as Belle. Hannah's struggle to tell Ben about her secret could easily have been stretched out for a few more episodes in an effort to provide a more solid story arc to the series, and it would have done wonders to tie the seemingly unrelated episodes together.

The acting in this series is consistently good, and Piper proves her ability to carry this series. Having appeared in almost every scene, Piper garners a lot of screen time, and she utilizes it very well, creating an authentic personality for this character without getting overwhelmed by the workload or exposure. Her chemistry with Goldberg is great, and he, too, carries his character very well, even playing off his off-screen fiancée with ease. With a different supporting cast in each episode, the pool of talent could have been very hit-and-miss, but everyone cast here was perfectly capable of maintaining the realism of the series without drawing attention away from the narrative.

Directing duties of this series were split between Yann Demange, who took control of the first four episodes, and Susan Tully, who took care of the final four episodes. Having had only two directors added a good sense of continuity and allowed for tighter transitioning between episodes than in most shows. Demange maintained a good use of Hannah/Belle's narration without letting it grow tired, and Tully kept focus on her characters' reactions to events rather than the events themselves. The tone of the episodes remains consistent where the themes are ever fluctuating, and there is a good sense of how these characters fit into the world they've been put in.

The focus on Hannah as a character, and her reactions to being Belle, go a long way to humanize the experience of escorting with the effect of taking something often considered taboo and making it appear more relatable to the audience. What's interesting is that, while Hannah's emotion and characterization are the focal point of the series, she seems to have made very little progress from where she started to where she ended up by the end of the final episode. Things often seem to come too easily to Hannah/Belle, and there are seldom any repercussions to her actions. Her relationship with Ben experiences a number of ups and downs as the series progresses, and while there are claims that things have changed between them they usually find themselves acting no different toward one another. It's difficult to get a good understanding of most of the supporting cast because they aren't given enough screen time to thrive. Hannah's natural intuition and the psychological theories she has gained through her work are a perfect fit for the character, and provide insights that make sense and seem completely unobtrusive.

The world created around Belle de Jour is rich and fascinating, though perhaps a little sunnier than the life experienced by her real-world counterpart. A stronger focus on the dangers of her work would have gone a long way to add a sense of realism to the story, but, if viewed as chapters in a novel she has written, it makes sense that each of these episodes could have been an answer to a question asked by a reporter, about group sex, the girlfriend-experience, the difference between escorting and courtesanship.

The review for "Tabloid Journalism" can be read here.


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