The Girlfriend Experience’s Smarts Are as Appealing as Its Sex
Is it possible for a TV series to be at once hot-cha-cha sexy and icily aloof? That’s the challenge—and the draw—of The Girlfriend Experience, a new Starz half-hour drama based upon (or, as the credits note, “suggested by”) the underrated 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. The original Girlfriend starred adult-film performer Sasha Grey as a high-end escort whose clients were struggling with the newly plunging economy; it was less about titillation than it was about class aspiration, cash anxiety, and the ever-changing exchange-rate of intimacy.
The new small-screen version of Girlfriend, which Soderbergh executive-produced, also has a lot on its mind, from the way technology has simplified (and complicated) the business of sex, to the secret rites and codes of corporate life. But since this is a modern cable show, there’s also plenty o’ boinking. “Tell me what you like about this,” demands Christine (Riley Keough), a young Chicago law student, as she masturbates for a guy she’s picked up at a bar—partly for pleasure, partly for research. Christine is smart, driven, and seemingly detached from many of her fellow humans, whom she sometimes observes with the unrattled, unbreakable gaze of an anthropologist; Keough, who starred in last summer’s Mad Max, has a stare that simultaneously draws you in and feels you out, and it’s put to good use here. “I just don’t like sharing my time with anyone, unless something’s being accomplished,” Christine confesses at one point, before asking if she might be a sociopath.
Christine’s best (maybe only?) friend is Avery, a fellow aspiring lawyer played by the magnetically malleable actress Kate Lyn Shell. In an effort to pay for school (and have some fun), Avery moonlights as a sex worker and occasional live-in lover, though the bulk of her work is conducted off-site and online, where sleekly designed websites, discreet money transfers, and flirtatious texts have made sex as readily available as an UberPool. “All I really have to do is listen and ask questions,” Avery says, adding, “…and fuck.”
Soon, Avery and her business-suited, power-lunching client-broker have convinced Christine to join the profession, which offers not only luxe-for-life perks ($700 bottles of champagnes, softly lit suites), but also a chance to put her social-skill studies at work. Adopting the name Chelsea, she engages in not so much role-playing as role-preparing, learning everything she can about the idiom and stagecraft of wealth-wrapped, transactional relationships, so that it can help her with her next john. Even when she’s having sex with a client, she’s observing; something’s always being accomplished.
The clients are mostly middle-aged white men with disposable income and demanding, sometimes crumbling professions—and if they’re aware of the fact that Chelsea’s using them as much as they’re using her, they either don’t show it or don’t care. In The Girlfriend Experience, it’s understood that each affectionate touch of the hand or lusty mid-afternoon mounting, as sincere as they might seem, is just the result of another smartphone-negotiated, expense-account-funded business deal.
That notion of sex as empty exchange isn’t exactly the newest idea about the world’s oldest profession. But when Chelsea lands an internship at a prestigious law firm, where she’s a silent witness to all sorts of well-tailored back-stabbing and poorly masked frustration, we see how her two professions reflect, and ultimately feed into, one another: Both require smiling, subtext-heavy back-and-forths, as well as the ability to cut off a relationship that may be weakening your position.
And as depicted by Girlfriend writer-directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan—whose respective debut features, Sun Don’t Shine and Clean, Shaven, deserve a spot at the top of your to-watch queue—Chelsea’s worlds of sex and law also share a fragile opulence. These are playgrounds, accentuated by floor-to-ceiling glass walls, softly swishing glasses of wine, and crisp hotel sheets. Girlfriend Experience pays close attention to such details of 21st-century swankery; it’s like scanning security-cam footage from Diddy’s Hamptons estate.
The Girlfriend Experience isn’t interested in judging the sacrifices and compromises such wealth requires, nor in judging Chelsea; it’s merely invites us to coolly watch her as she coolly watches others. Soderbergh told the New York Times that he warned Starz this would be a “strange” show, and it is—not for any stylistic reasons, but for the fact that it smartly and unfussily treats sex-workers and white-collar world as equals, and gets as turned on by conference-room discussions as hotel-room trysts. That may not satisfy late-night cable-owners who tune into The Girlfriend Experience expecting some easy-lifting T&A. But for viewers who like a little headiness now and then, it’s hot stuff.