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Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a gorgeous, menacing gem of a TV series

The Girlfriend Experience.
The Girlfriend Experience.
Starz

The Girlfriend Experience, an icy new limited series from Starz and Steven Soderbergh, isn't selling love. That's the show's greatest seduction.

Rating


4

Soderbergh, who serves as an executive producer, created a short film with the same name in 2009. But the only thing the two versions of Girlfriend Experience have in common is that they're both about sex work. In his film, Soderbergh told a story of economic decline and Wall Street excess, filtered through the lens of prostitution. For Starz, he's entrusted filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz to tell a much different story — a more cerebral and glassy tale about the trade.

Riley Keough, the eldest grandchild of Elvis Presley and heir to his hairline, plays Christine Reade, a second-year law student who's scored an internship at Kirkland Allen, a top law firm in Chicago. Keough's Christine is as smart as she is beautiful, resourceful as she is intelligent, and ruthless as she is determined; law is simply the field she's decided to excel in. It seems she could have studied to be a surgeon, a CIA agent, or a chef and achieved just as much success.

During our first encounter with Christine, a frenemy named Avery introduces her to the world of private escorts. Avery is a fantastic idiot who's too dumb to see that she's awakened the Roger Federer of prostitution — someone who will be more popular, more powerful, and richer than Avery could possibly dream of.

Christine approaches sex work like she does her education or her job at the law firm. She respects it, analyzes it, treats it like a business, and ultimately excels at it. But the most difficult thing about it isn't the sex but finding a way to keep it from bleeding into her personal life — not that there's much there that Christine would deem personal.

The more she wrestles with this balance, the more everything begins to bleed together, and the more we find out just how little we know Christine. And when the show and our heroine begin to unfurl their dark wings — that's when it really takes off.

The Girlfriend Experience — which debuted Sunday, April 10, on Starz and is available in its entirety on the network's on-demand streaming service — immediately qualifies as one of the most fascinating shows on television.

The Girlfriend Experience is gorgeously shot

The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)

The Girlfriend Experience. (Starz)

It's generally expected that any project Steven Soderbergh puts his name on is going to be visually stunning. He is, after all, an Oscar-winning director who's known for creating beautiful movies.

Though Soderbergh didn't direct any of The Girlfriend Experience's 13 episodes, the spirit of his work lives on in the show's visuals. Kerrigan and Seimetz tell a rich story in each frame. Sometimes we see Christine's face through a restaurant's window and hear her intimate conversation from a distance. At other times we're invasively close, lying right next to her while she's silent.

There's also what Kerrigan and Seimetz are shooting.

The two have created metropolitan porn. This world is sleek and cool, clinical even. The gist of The Girlfriend Experience centers on what escorts and their clients do in the bedroom, but the show isn't set in the bedroom. It takes place in opulent restaurants, within the frosted walls of corporate conference rooms, and on the upper floors and penthouses of sky-scraping buildings.

Clean, minimalist spaces dominate many scenes, giving the show an intellectual, distant feel that echoes our heroine's demeanor. It's as if Kerrigan and Seimetz are using architecture and these cold spaces to tell us more about Christine.

There's so much thought put into each scene, the composition of each frame, and the camera angles being used that you could mute the show and still come away with a brilliant, emotional story.

Riley Keough's performance is dazzling

The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)

The Girlfriend Experience. (Starz)

Christine is a call girl for the 1 percent. She has to adapt her personality, her appearance, her humor, her intelligence, and even her name to make her clients feel doted on and comfortable. Her personality is bespoke, just like the suits her johns are wearing; her living is dependent how alluring a companion she can be.

Perhaps playing a guarded woman who spends most of her time acting like someone else isn't the toughest assignment for an actress. Playing Christine essentially requires Keough to act like an actor.

But Keough is absolutely riveting.

Because we're on in the charade between Christine and her clients — it's business for her; it's more than that to some of them — Christine's work becomes a hypnotizing game of control. She is constantly readjusting, recalculating how she can maximize a given situation. Keough lets that through in brief, fragile flashes, and then it instantly disappears as her face sharpens into pouts or softens into smiles, depending on what her clients want and what she wants to give them.

Where Keough absolutely shines is in instilling a stark gloss of reticence in Christine. It's impossible to tell whether she pursues escorting for the money or because she views it as a challenge and wants to be the best at it. Her relationships, even the ones that don't end with envelopes full of money, are all transactional. And Keough swirls in a sly bit of menace, making Christine into one of the most beguiling and perhaps frightening TV characters in recent memory.

"Am I a sociopath?" Christine asks her sister early in the season.

Her sister replies that sociopaths obviously wouldn't even ask that question. Christine's sister fails to consider that a sociopath could be asking that question just to seem more human. And the beauty of Keough's performance as Christine is that you can never quite be sure.

The Girlfriend Experience is the anti-Devil Wears Prada

On the surface, The Girlfriend Experience and The Devil Wears Prada look very similar.

There's a fetishization of minimalist, corporate office space in both. Both works include a generous sequence in which a woman's appearance is weaponized and becomes as powerful as battle armor — both protagonists are aware that their looks affect their jobs. Both feature a nemesis character named Jacqueline (pronounced like Jacques-Leen).

And when you dig deeper, both stories are about a young woman dipping her toes into a glamorous profession that, should she rise to the top of it, will result in people disliking her because of the work she does and how she does it.

Where The Girlfriend Experience and The Devil Wears Prada veer away from each other is that the latter is primarily concerned with the relationship you have with your boss and how willing you are to do what that person asks of you.

Christine, on the other hand, has no loyalty to her bosses.

In the first days of her internship, Christine is scolded for trying to improve cease-and-desist letters. She doesn't simply cut and paste — she adds in what she feels could make these letters better. When she's scolded, she recalibrates her behavior and then slowly begins to win favor with her boss (Paul Sparks). She doesn't do this because she has some desire to be liked or because she admires her boss's intelligence. Rather, she wants to be the best.

She behaves in a similar manner way with Jacqueline, her upscale pimp. Within a few minutes of meeting her, she asks Jacqueline why she's even necessary.

Christine's spirit and smarts make living vicariously through her more alluring, and they also allow the show to examine the topic of sex and sex work in a way that's much more analytical than scintillating. Christine approaches sex in a straightforward, impersonal way — we're reminded on at least three occasions that she practices safe sex — and treats it as a business.

There's a villain to The Girlfriend Experience: It's the nightmare of losing control. For Christine, that means being outed to her friends, family, and law colleagues as an escort. But again, with Christine things are always murky. It's hard to tell if she fears being outed more because of the implications to her family and her job or if it's because it's a moment where she isn't in charge of the situation.

What the show makes abundantly clear is that Christine isn't a victim of her job. No doubt there's a plethora of stories to be told about sex trafficking and forced sex labor. But The Girlfriend Experience isn't about those topics, does not pretend to be about those topics, and should not be measured against those topics.

The Girlfriend Experience is ultimately a fantasy of decision.

The show offers the warm fantasy that if you know yourself, all you need to exist in this life is you. Christine's opulent, $1,000-per-hour universe is something she creates, controls, and rules over. That you're able to watch her call the shots in her own life is much more seductive than sex, or love, or both.

All 13 episodes of The Girlfriend Experience are available now on Starz on Demand.

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