Is our popular culture morally upside down? If not, why do good people have to make for terribly boring television? By contrast, why are bad people endlessly fascinating? It's because Hollywood's creative geniuses are obsessed with turning morality on its head. Once upon a time on TV, there were series like "Dragnet" and "The FBI" and "Adam-12" with the black and white of good and bad. Protagonists were role models for youngsters. When children played Cops and Robbers, there was no moral confusion over the roles.
In these dark ages of TV, the old formulas are being disdained like newspaper for the bottom of the birdcage. Instead, every form of criminality is mined for its moral "complexity." TV writers are stretching and straining to make law-breakers, including the purely evil ones, admirable, understandable, and often sympathetic.
The Showtime pay-cable network has made a specialty out of shining an honorific light on every seedy corner of criminal darkness. In 2005, they dragged out "Weeds," with the poor widowed suburban mom who just had to delve into selling marijuana. In 2006, they sunk much lower into the sewage pit with "Dexter," the series about the sympathetic serial killer who only unleashes his sick compulsions to torture and mutilate on other criminals. CBS even promoted this series to free network TV.
This year, the new fascination is prostitution, and Showtime has proudly unveiled a British import called "Secret Diary of a Call Girl." Sadly, and predictably, Showtime's program glamorizing prostitution is not unique. HBO is also developing a similar series called "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" from a "tantalizing" bad-girl novel.
"Secret Diary" follows the tawdry life of "Belle de Jour," who feels no shame and displays no regrets for her career, as long as her parents don't find out. "Escort, hooker, prostitute, whore, I don't care what you call me," she declares. "They're just semantics."
Women might try to delve into Belle's motivation for choosing her "high class" career, but this show isn't meant to be appreciated by women. The show is designed for men, who are routinely teased with Belle's every pout, pose, and heavy-breathing thrust. It is soft-core, hotel-room porn.
Make no mistake: The soft-core sex scenes in this show are quite explicit. Imagine a family with pay-cable blithely whipping through channels and coming across a "sex worker" performing oral sex on a man in a hotel room. Or riding a man atop a saddle in a black bra and panties? Showtime puts "Secret Diary" on at 10:30 pm on Mondays, but replays it Wednesdays at 9. In the summertime, it's barely dark before the explicit sex airs.
Showtime's website clearly revels in the naughtiness of the subject. In one of its free downloads for Internet sites, it spells out Belle's trashy tricks of the trade:
- "Talk dirty. A bad reputation can be good for business."
- "No money, no honey. Never play until they pay."
- "Be nimble, be quick. Satisfy the client as fast as you can."
- "Watch the wait. A high-class tart is never tardy."
Other Showtime ads use cheesy slogans like "Doing the town" and "Easy to love" to accompany come-hither shots of Belle. Showtime also urges its subscribers to "sign up to be a friend to high-class hooker Belle de Jour on the Secret Diary Facebook page."
"Secret Diary" is paired with "Weeds" for a full-hour of female-outlaw enjoyment. Showtime calls them "comedies," although there really weren't any laughs in the "Secret Diary" premiere. In a press release, Showtime celebrates Belle the hooker as a "contemporary woman. She is smart, strong and confident and, like many modern women, she is struggling to balance her personal and professional life."
(I wonder what the modern women reading these words right now are thinking.)
TV critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun was blunt about "Secret Diary," deploring it as a "nonstop glamorization of prostitution. Belle is portrayed and presented as a London version of Carrie Bradshaw in 'Sex and the City' -- except she gets paid lots of money for having sex with men."
Zurawik also noted this fun-loving, female-empowering approach to prostitution was touted by "DC Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey and one of her call girls, Brandy Britton. But then, thankfully, he lowered the boom: "Forgive this cold splash of social reality, but both Palfrey and Britton committed suicide. That's the kind of story line you won't see explored in Showtime's caviar-kisses and champagne-baths version of prostitution tonight."
Hollywood's champions of immorality always say they're exploring the "gray" areas of morality. They've transcended even that. They are actively painting saintly whites of "complexity" into that overworked genre of "black comedy." Being funny or sexy or vulnerable doesn't make an outlaw morally complex. Hollywood isn't wallowing in "gray." It's dyeing the whole country in black.
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