The Girlfriend Experience—a Starz original program based on Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget 2009 film of the same name—is a strange beast. Oppressively atmospheric and cold to the touch, The Girlfriend Experience makes an odd first impression. The show feels clinical, both the color palette and the repressive drone of the score are reminiscent of the sights and sounds inside an operating room. But as the show progresses the atmosphere and detached method of story-telling blend into a whole, creating a freshman season of television that is haunting and affective.
Christine Reade is the show’slead, a cynical law student with an internship at a profitable law firm, who wades into the world of high end prostitution. Christine is the show’s beating heart, she’s cold and domineering, keeps all of her feelings behind a stone veneer and (calmly) contemplates whether she’s a sociopath (her sister tells her she isn’t, as she believes sociopaths would never care if they were sociopaths). She’s vulnerable and indomitable, and her motives and true feelings are the show’s biggest mysteries. Needless to say, Christine—or Chelsea Rain, as she is known to her clients—is a character whose authenticity relies on the skill-set of the actress charged with bringing her to life. That actress is Riley Keough (pronounced Key-OH), who at only twenty seven years old, possesses the talent and nuance of an actor whose spent a life time in front of the camera. Keough’s performance is measured, calm and fearless. Christine is a character roiling with feeling and emotion who holds it all inside and Keough conveys the weight of such a complicated character without ever betraying her confidence.
In addition to Keough, The Girlfriend Experience is comprised of an interesting pedigree of talent. The show was adapted for television by Lodge Kerrigan (director of Clean, Shaven and Keane, Kerrigan has spent the better half of the last decade directing television) and the engrossing Amy Seimetz, who has made a name for herself as an actress, with memorable appearances in You’re Next and Entertainment, as well as a career defining performance in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Speaking of Carruth, the celebrated but reclusive director (2013’s Upstream Color was only Carruth’s second film, following his 2004 low-budget, cult classic Primer) lends his musical compositions to The Girlfriend Experience, drowning the film in a somber, grim, synth hum. And Carruth’s score sets the table for the stylistic choices that define the show’s first season. “I have a thing about small spaces” Christine tells one of her clients, giving insight not just to Christine’s character but into Kerrigan and Seimetz’s—who share not just creator credits but all of the writing and directing credits as well—ethos of blocking and framing. Christine is often swimming (quite literally in several episodes) in large open spaces, spaces she can control. But when the tension begins and the plot points established in the first few episodes begin to pay off—putting Christine in increasingly precarious positions, both with her clients and at her law firm (where she inserts herself into a hostile situation with dangerous legal ramifications)—Kerrigan and Seimetz follow suit by shrinking the frame around her, often restricting her into tight shots and placing her in the confines of a well-placed set piece. Kerrigan and Seimetz are also sharp writers, patient and witty, turning in a series of confident scripts rife with ingenious storytelling. They also appear to be pros at dark humor, inserting comedy into the show’s most genuine moments (when confronting corporate improprieties in the season’s eighth episode—a huge moment for both Christine and the show—Christine shares a hilarious and contentious exchange with a co-worker, played by Mary Lyn Rajskub, that ends with the dry line “Ok, we’re friends” delivered with Bill Murray-level confidence by Keough).
Though The Girlfriend Experience is a rewarding show, it can be difficult to make a connection. It’s glacial and detached, and the fact that it’s a thirty minute drama makes it seem all the more antagonistic to the viewer. But the show is intentionally antagonistic, challenging the viewer’s sense of what a twenty-first century woman (as well as a twenty-first century show) can be. The show is fiercely feminist despite a premise which could lend itself to gross misogyny. Christine may worry about being a sociopath, but she’s a woman who has decided to game the system of a male-dominated world (and we frequently see other women in her peer group swallowed alive by the system). When a client gets too friendly she tells him in no uncertain terms “Do not EVER do that again”. That’s not to say Christine isn’t immune to the male gaze or the dangers of toxic masculinity, as much of the show’s tension is derived from overly-aggressive clients and corporate men who treat the women in their lives as pawns. But Christine confronts these issues head on, as does the show, presenting Christine in a dominate position in nearly every sex scene (in fact, the first indication that one of her clients is a danger is when he is shown as the first man to have sex with Christine in a dominant role). But The Girlfriend Experience isn’t interested in being a one-issue program, frequently and precisely lampooning corporate America by embracing the idea that there are no personal relationships in business. This is a sentiment Christine echoes verbatim in one episode (and the major crux of this season is whether this a sentiment she actually believes); in “Insurance” the season’s fifth and best episode, we see Christine may actually be emotionally invested in people when she’s enveloped in a small bout of panic when she thinks one of her clients has drowned during a tryst on his yacht (but then again, the panic could be a capitalist concern; the show’s greatest strength is that Christine is an enigma whose true feelings are buried deep inside an abyss that will give the bends to anyone who tries to uncover them).
The Girlfriend Experience is what we’ve come to expect from prestige television in 2016, a challenging and rewarding experience that promises to evolve into something wonderful (not to say that the first season isn’t wonderful itself but the second season—which has already been renewed by Starz—promises to grow into something spectacular). It’s also perfected a growing trend in twenty-first century: the art of the slow burn. Like Bloodline (in its first season at least) and The Americans, The Girlfriend Experience is calculated, setting up payoffs episodes in advance and spending large swaths of its slight runtime creating a tone that is grimly realistic but one that can only exist within the magical realm of television.