THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, the new Starz show that’s “suggested by” executive producer Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, is an alluring and captivating show that successfully eschews most of the conventions that have become commonplace in the medium. It’s written and directed by independent film darlings Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine) and Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven), who were given a mandate by Soderbergh at the outset to take only the title of his film and make the show their own. They succeeded on that front, as The Girlfriend Experience is a true piece of auteur television that plays more like a 6 1/2 hour film than a traditional television narrative.
Much like Soderbergh’s The Knick, The Girlfriend Experience feels distinct, deliberate, and challenging in a way that’s rare on television. The creators make bold choices in the show; some work and some don’t, but through and through you can feel the voice of Seimetz & Kerrigan coming through in a way that’s so unusual in a medium characterized by the homogenization stemming from writers’ rooms and new directors coming in each week and doing nothing more daring than following a preexisting visual template.
The story follows Christine Reade, a young law student interning at a prestigious Chicago firm. Her friend Avery introduces her to the world of transactional relationships, a more intimate form of escorting in which the client is given “the girlfriend experience.” It’s noteworthy that Christine isn’t forced into prostitution, nor does she fit the psychologically damaged profile of a prostitute normally seen on television. She spends the first two episodes witnessing Avery’s disproportionately lavish lifestyle and seizes the opportunity to make that kind of money for herself. It’s never explicitly stated why Christine is willing to begin committing these illegal acts, no Breaking Bad-like inciting incident that starts the character’s descent into criminality. All we are really told is that she’s doing it because she wants to and because she’s determined it’s worth the risk it could pose to her law career.
Riley Keough gives an arresting performance as Christine, and it’s a challenging role to pull off. The viewer is in the position of one of her clients: we meet Christine and we’re drawn to her, wanting to know more about her, but despite all the time we spend with her, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we’ll never be able to fully understand her or tell which aspects of her are genuine and which are artifice. I have a hard time recalling a television show that so deliberately prevents the audience from accessing its main character’s thought processes or motivation. Television is by and large an information-driven medium, with even in the most subtle shows often forced to emphasize information dissemination over the narrative subtlety afforded by film. I can see Christine’s character being off-putting for some people, since television protagonists so frequently act as audience surrogates, while here the viewer is always a step behind Christine, trying to understand why she did something she did instead of experiencing it along with her.
Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan split directing duties over the first four episodes, with Seimetz taking episodes 1 and 4 and Kerrigan directing episodes 2 and 3. What is especially impressive about The Girlfriend Experience from a directorial perspective is that the two filmmakers, who had never worked together prior to this, maintain a consistent, distinct voice regardless of who was behind the camera. On other shows that also fit the “auteur television” build, like The Knick or the first season of True Detective, there is one director behind every episode in a season, making it easier to maintain a consistent, distinct vision. To have two directors, with fairly different styles and sensibilities, split the duties in a way that brings out the best of both their unique talents while maintaining a consistent voice is striking. I would not be surprised to see this kind of approach taken more after this, since it produced quality results in this instance. So much of television directing often feels like dispensable work, with directors coming in and being asked to shoot what’s on the page in the most visually uninteresting, information-driven way possible, and The Girlfriend Experience bucks that feeling entirely.
One aspect of the show I was surprised by was its relentlessly glum tone. I should have expected it, since the 2009 film was similarly grim, with a focus on Christine’s Wall Street banker clients increasingly drawn to the girlfriend experience in order to escape the reality of the financial crisis. Still, I would have expected a more pronounced tonal contrast between the scenes of Christine interning at the law firm and Chelsea with her clients. It doesn’t seem like Christine, or any other character on the show, is happy, regardless of what they’re doing with their life. We know that Christine enters this trade simply because she wants to. No one is forcing her. But when she has sex with clients, it’s impossible to tell whether she actually enjoys it or derives pleasure from it.
We get the most revealing insight into Christine’s true nature in the fourth episode, when her sister Annabelle (played by Seimetz) comes to visit. This is the first time we see Christine open up in what appears to be a genuine way, when she tells her sister, “I just don’t enjoy spending time with people. I find it to be a waste of time and it makes me anxious.” This is the most explicit statement about what really makes Christine tick, but it’s only scratching the surface. Later in the episode, after being confronted by a client’s angry wife, who offers to pay Christine to stay away from her husband, Christine earnestly asks her sister if she’s a sociopath. Her sister denies it but all of the evidence we’ve seen, in the brief time we’ve spent with Christine, makes it seem like it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
One other unconventional aspect of The Girlfriend Experience is the fact that it’s a drama told in 30 minutes increments instead of hour-long episodes. While this isn’t unprecedented (In Treatment was a good example of this), it’s rare and it gives the episodes a different, more propulsive energy than typical dramas. With only half an hour, there’s little room for filler and plots develop much quicker than expected. While we get some hints of attraction between Christine and Avery in the first episode, I didn’t expect them to consummate the relationship in the second episode; the standard beats of television made be believe that “will they, won’t they” aspect of their relationship would be stretched out over the course of the season. Likewise, it was easy to see coming that Christine would eventually end up sleeping with David but I didn’t expect that to develop as quickly as it did, with the two already sleeping together by the fourth episode.
The Girlfriend Experience is a unique show that already has its hooks in me after the first four episodes. I’ll be curious to see what happens when Christine’s two worlds inevitably intersect, whether the show manages to make the supporting characters feel more substantive, and what the fallout will be from Christine sleeping with her boss.
Eric enjoys watching and making movies.
Eric Colasante | Contributor