In the sprawling aftermath of Golden Age of television, shows are covered as vociferously and hyper-intellectually (if not more so) as films. The party line seems to be that — from lauded shows from The Wire to Breaking Bad, to big-budget, event spectaculars like Game of Thrones — TV has found ways to achieve everything that films do, and they do it all the time.
This is not exactly true. At least, it doesn’t seem that way while watching Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, a series with a uniquely measured pacing which evades textbook “serious TV” plot gambits. As a result of this, it feels like it’s channeled a truly, inherently “cinematic” quality rarely seen on TV.
A takeoff on Steven Soderbergh’s under-recognized 2009 film of the same name, — which starred porn star Sasha Grey — the show follows law student and intern Christine Reade, who begins to work nights as a high-end escort, and is the work of two experienced and respected actors and indie filmmakers. These are Amy Seimitz (Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color star) and Lodge Kerrigan (Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs)): writer/directors with one foot in adventurous film projects and another in television.
The Starz show is beautifully and artfully shot and cut, featuring long tracking shots and dramatic, experimental angles which draw attention to themselves without impinging on the placid power of the performances — especially Riley Keough’s emotionally dynamic, but often opaque Christine.
It’s not just the show’s aesthetic and acting that makes it unique: The storytelling subverts expectations at every turn. Characters rise up in seeming significance and then fade, people who seem relatively unimportant to the action (for the first section of the series, Paul Sparks’ David Tellis) become crucial, and unexpected villains. Long, twisting plot lines become red herrings.
What’s important are the things they reveal about Christine’s complex, instructive psychology, and her journey to self-actualization, despite incredible, traumatic obstacles. She struggles to juggle work with, well, work, eventually losing control on her prospective law career. She ramps up operations in her second life, which increasingly seems like her calling. Unexpected collision points — bursts of male vengeance, often — cause her to lose control, something to which she is thoroughly unaccustomed.
The Girlfriend Experience’s refusal to adhere to typical structures, both within episodes and across the series, has polarized critics. Many have offered nothing but the highest praise, but others have excoriated its vague messaging and unusual syntax. For example, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody objected to its skewed character development, and The Los Angeles Times deemed the show, at different turns, boring and indulgent. In many cases, the lack of a clear moralizing message about its controversial subject matter were considered part of the problem.
The Girlfriend Experience does stoke different associations at different points, forcing the viewer to adjust and readjust his mindset. It’s safe to call it a confusing watch. Sometimes it waxes more pulpy noir than a “realistic” look at the life of contemporary sex workers; sometimes it’s almost sadistically uncomfortable to watch, finding parallels with Steve McQueen’s 2011 exploration of sex addiction Shame. The character of Christine is, at turns, beyond hard to grasp; a sociopath, it might seem. Increasingly, she’s built up to be sympathetic, in non-stereotypical ways, and at the very least, intensely and viscerally human.
But the combination between her unexpected actions (her angry attacks on those who betray her or make her feel unsafe) and relatively logical character development — our gradual understanding of her “normal but suffocating upbringing — resolve, ultimately, into an amazingly resonant and detailed picture. This says more about the complex experience of a prostitute than a more overtly moralizing and topically focused show would doubtless be able to do. Across the season, Christine plummets to the bottom of the proverbial downward spiral, but in another sense, she comes to terms with deeper truths about herself.
Where most shows expand in scope across a season — building out side characters and the scope of its vision — The Girlfriend Experience hones and clarifies itself. In pursuing this focused structure, it feels more like a serialized art film than TV drama as we know it today, though it doesn’t draw unseemly attention to its desire to be different. Some subject matter just warrants a different form. Everything about The Girlfriend Experience seems deliberate — razor-sharp in its effectiveness.
The Girlfriend Experience is airing on Starz now and available in its entirety on Starz on-demand.