Starz’s new series The Girlfriend Experience can best be described as a taut, suspenseful drama about a law student selling her body to pay the bills — cloaked in the message that there’s nothing sexy about this underworld.
Starz put the full season of half-hour episodes onto Starz on Demand, which is a nice way to sample a new show without adding to an already competitive Sunday night.
Riley Keough (Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter, whom you might recognize as the redhead runaway sex slave in Mad Max: Fury Road) plays Christine Reade, who’s studying patent law in Chicago when one of her classmates introduces her to the world of escorting. The friend pitches the perks: set your own hours, live a comfortable lifestyle instead of being a starving student, feel the “rush” of “knowing he wants me.” The clients are older, often married men who are looking for a discreet “girlfriend experience” — a woman who will be there for dinner and, naturally, dessert when he comes through town, who listens when he wants to talk about his day, who is always up for anything.
Christine begins by working through a madam who arranges her dates and “pre-screens” her clients, then strikes out on her own. She simultaneously interns at a law firm, where, not surprisingly, her side job becomes woven into the drama. Sex in the show, even in her first encounter when she’s still an ordinary student and not taking an envelope full of cash, is mechanical, transactional, uncomfortable, even menacing.
We’ve already seen the unsexiness of the sex industry portrayed brilliantly before on the big screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature Boogie Nights. We never got the impression that the characters were happy or satisfied with their lives, but societal cast-offs resigned to their microcosm. We see the abuse that drove the main character toward his new porn family, the parental bonds that formed among those with no other family, the fury of a character who has grown weary of disrespect from men, the joy of a character who breaks free of the chains of the porn life by marrying a nice Pep Boys manager and moving to Bakersfield.
In The Girlfriend Experience, it’s largely a world of isolation for the protagonist’s business. The only seemingly genuine warmth she shares with a client is a man old enough to be her grandfather, a lonely widower who’s one of her first clients. The minimalist sets and cinematography reflect her dispassionate attitude toward sex: everything is cold and gray, her apartment includes only the bare necessities. She eyes the playful, loving relationship between her parents at their 30th anniversary party with a chill stare that we can only try to interpret as unfamiliarity, envy, disgust or emptiness.
There’s no uplifting conclusion like the comedy Trainwreck, in which Amy Schumer learns that love is better than casual sex. Another escort confesses that she wants to leave the work because she wants to have kids, but Christine isn’t jumping in on that chorus. She seems to want to be selling the girlfriend experience, but openly wonders at one point if she has some condition classified in the DSM that keeps her from having feelings.
And we wonder, too, if she’s a sociopath, narcissist, psychopath or some combination thereof as her scheming propels her further down the rabbit hole. Besides some unkindness in brief scenes with her mother, we don’t get an indication of anything in her past that may have steered her in this direction, as we did with Dirk Diggler’s dysfunctional family in Boogie Nights. When Christine has a scene where she breaks down, we immediately wonder if it’s real or she’s faking it to manipulate present company.
The Girlfriend Experience even works better in 30-minute episodes, despite TV dramas usually running an hour. It works as a confounding yet fascinating character study, because the viewer’s left unsure if she wants to know the character at all. But it’s still a show where you want to know what dramatic twist happens next.