The Girlfriend Experience is, at times, irritating, captivating, uncomfortable, beautiful, heavy-handed, frightening, confusing, and a little bit dumb. The new Starz series is loosely inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, which chronicled the work of a high-end escort (played by then-adult-actress Sasha Grey) trying to make money in New York City after the 2008 financial collapse. This time around, the story moves to Chicago, where Christine Reade (Riley Keough) becomes interested in escort work after she discovers a close friend makes most of her income from it. That’s the elevator pitch for The Girlfriend Experience — one woman’s experience of exchanging sex for money — but it’s really just a starting point for the show’s attempts to explore under-the-table transactions as a general space: the hidden exchanges of the economy, business, family, and sex. On The Girlfriend Experience, this space exists in moody hotel room lighting and late nights at the office, coming up for daylight only when the dark gets too heavy.
When we meet Christine, she’s a law student with an internship at a glossy patent law firm, and she’s semi-scandalized by the idea of being an escort. While her escort friend talks about her work, Christine asks, "And you have sex with them?" with the doe-eyed innocence of Anastasia Steele. "You meet men online?" she gasps at another point, as if this wouldn’t be any logical person’s first assumption. But The Girlfriend Experience moves quickly, and Christine soon morphs into someone who not only makes sex her living, but is painfully blasé about it.
Moody hotel room lighting and late nights at the office
Keough’s portrayal of Christine is calculated, cold, and pristine, like a revamped Patrick Bateman. "I just don’t enjoy spending time with people," she says at one of the show’s many nondescript hotel restaurants. "I find it to be a waste of time." At one point, she asks her older sister if she thinks she could be a sociopath. (Sure, since that's what you obviously want us to think, the audience answers.) Throughout most of the series’ 13 episodes, Keough maintains the same dead-eyed stare almost without interruption. Even moments of intense fear and paranoia are trumped by this blank look, as if Christine is terrified to feel anything other than a deadening emptiness. This stoicism can also make Keough sound like an unintentionally comedic robot. ("I love vacations" is among the best / worst line readings on the show.)
Over the course of the series, Christine sleeps with several men, many of whom feel indistinguishable from one another (aging, strong-jawed business-types with very clean suits and even cleaner apartments). But in a show that feels like it’s shot in a museum, the men often seem like the closest thing to flesh and blood. There’s the widower with fungus on his feet whose children won’t talk to him, the hotel owner taking out loans so he can afford to pay Christine, the good-guy lawyer, and the married guy who seems to be the only one who understands Christine is just another flawed person. Christine’s interactions with some of these men are the only evidence that she's capable of empathy.
Like Soderbergh’s original movie (he stays on as an executive producer here), The Girlfriend Experience is obsessed with specific spaces, and the feelings associated with those spaces. Almost all of the show is shot in apartments that look more like showrooms than homes, and high-ceilinged hotels with overpriced restaurants attached. Directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz told The Verge they shot with almost no lighting save what came into each scene naturally. This has the effect of making the show’s atmosphere look almost supernatural, filtered by murky orange and blue lights. The Girlfriend Experience is aesthetically beautiful, and almost consistently stunning to look at. Long, patient shots seem to slow down time, even as more than a year passes over the course of the series. In one scene, we watch from above as Christine gets a microdermabrasion facial. It’s long enough to detach viewers from what’s really happening: just a shiny metal tool slowly working against flesh. The soundtrack too recalls a specific kind of wealthy, ambient horror: single, piercing notes; ice clinking against glass; hotel doors unlocking with plastic key cards.
These effects only heighten the fact that show already feels like a political thriller. The Girlfriend Experience is obsessed with money, status, cheating, and getting caught. Because prostitution is illegal in the show’s world, every sex scene (and there are many) feels like a covert documentation of a criminal act, even if Christine isn’t with a client. Every scene leading up to a sex scene can feel like a threat. Even while trying to claim that sex is no big deal, The Girlfriend Experience is often hand-wringing and squeamish, treating physical intimacy like an act of body horror. This also means that the show can feel slightly self-important at times, with overly serious dialogue like "You can be whoever you want to be," and "Everyone is paid to be everywhere — it’s called economy."
A show about having explicit, but perfected, sex in beautiful hotel rooms
The Girlfriend Experience is a show about having explicit but perfected sex in beautiful hotel rooms. The floors are always shined and Christine rarely has a stray hair fall out of her bun. It’s about the end result at all costs; several of its tangled plotlines get lost and never finish. Characters who once seemed significant fade into the background. The Girlfriend Experience is definitely not a portrayal of most realities, and probably not a portrayal of any single person’s reality either, escort or otherwise. The show is a lot like its main character: distractingly beautiful, but ultimately empty, even when it treats you to a little glimpse of humanity.
The Girlfriend Experience premieres on Starz on April 10th and all 13 episodes will be available on Starz On Demand and Starz Play.