Steven Soderbergh‘s The Girlfriend Experience, though primarily focused on the business and intimate relationships of a high-end Manhattan escort, played by the adult film actress Sasha Grey, was all about money. Everything about the language and visuals of Soderbergh’s 70-odd-minute drama was focused on the cost of things, luxury, and how money creates an appealing image of a person.
It’s reassuring then that the TV series loosely adapted from Soderbergh’s film, which the show also shares its name with, concerns money but is not particularly interested in the coldness and ugliness of wealth. As created, written, and directed by the team of Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who have both more than proven themselves as independent filmmakers, Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience is an intoxicating, provocative, and staggeringly sexy consideration of the illusion of intimacy as compared against whatever real intimacy is, as the title suggests. In following a rookie escort, played by Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Riley Keough, who spends most of her days in law school or interning for a prestigious firm that specializes in medical and pharmaceutical patents, Seimetz and Kerrigan find a way of sparking a variety of dazzling insights into matters of femininity, business culture, trust, sex, and, ultimately, their very own work.
Work is the primary activity in the series, whether in socializing and having sex with a stranger for money, studying for exams and mid-term essays, or collating, filing, writing, and assisting a series of high-priced lawyers. At one point, Keough’s Christine, who goes by the name of Chelsea when she’s with her clients, says something to the effect that she didn’t know she could keep a candle burning at three ends, which relates perfectly to her station. There’s a sense from early on that its this inability to have a comfortable life as a professionally driven, ambitious woman, without spending 20 out of 24 hours of the day working in some way, that makes Christine so cold.
That being said, there’s something distant about Christine from the minute the show begins, a feeling that getting personal with this law student isn’t particularly easy, if possible at all. An early encounter with a man she picks up at a bar ends with them masturbating on opposite sides of the room, and later, she admits to her sister (Seimetz) that she hates being around other people, with the exception of her sibling alone. And yet, as Chelsea, Christine seems to enjoy sex intensely, and soon enough, she begins relating that sense of performance to her attempts to move ahead at the firm. It’s a testament to Keough’s performance that she’s able to so readily and quietly express levels of forged and true emotions, sometimes even at the same time, occassionally relying on nothing more as a perfectly timed pause or a near-negligible gesticulation. Towards the middle of the season, Chelsea’s steely confidence in facing the wife of a client is undermined exquisitely with the trembling of her hand while holding a glass of iced tea.
The act of balancing these jobs and commitments is not indifferent to the work that Seimetz and Kerrigan must do to keep their projects distinct to their feelings and sensibilities. Not for nothing does Seimetz act, direct, write, and produce for a variety of other artists: She appeared in Adam Wingard‘s excellent You’re Next, produced Joe Swanberg‘s remarkable Silver Bullets and Barry Jenkins‘ Medicine for Melancholy, and did some work on the script for Swanberg’s Alexander the Last. (Seimetz was also the co-lead in Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color, one of the best films of this decade, and Carruth pays back the favor by appearing in the series as the worse half of a couple Chelsea sleeps with and providing music for the score.) What she suggests, alongside Kerrigan, in The Girlfriend Experience is that the tremendous, exhaustive work she does has its consequences on her (and most dedicated artists’) personal life and her behavior in both good ways and bad.
This isn’t even touching on Seimetz’s directorial debut, Sun Don’t Shine, which was one of the very best features of 2013, the same year that Upstream Color was released. That film starred the great Kate Lyn Shiel, who appears here as Christine’s friend and gateway into the escort lifestyle, and shot to evoke an almost sun-bleached aesthetic, perfectly mirroring Shiel’s character’s heated, increasingly unhinged temperament. Here, she trades that in for a glossier overall look and a largely colder, darker color scheme, shooting in a series of restaurants, bars, hotels, offices, and apartments that are all cleanly designed to reflect the most modern tastes in everything from glasswork to light fixtures. Seimetz and Kerrigan seem to focus specifically on the modern love for glass walls and doors, which tellingly gives total transparency and yet is inarguably serves as a boundary between people, such as the one between Christine’s desk and the corner office of David (Paul Sparks), her boss at the firm.
It’s no fair to reveal how all this begins to boil over for Christine (and Chelsea), but its easy enough to say that Chelsea’s newest source of income gets her involved in personal matters beyond her intended purview. Like with Soderbergh’s original, The Girlfriend Experience infers the complicated emotional and fiscal fallout of taking other people’s money to fund your profession, not unlike working with independent producers to get the materials to finish a film or any sort of artistic profession. The symbolism works as much for Seimetz and Kerrigan as it does for Keough, who, as a woman, is often asked to use her body and natural good looks as much as her talents as an actor to power a film or TV show. It’s a tribute to all three, as well as the spectacular supporting cast and skilled crew, that the series never comes off as tawdry or particularly clinical in its approach to such racy and rote material. Instead, they imbue the show with potent eroticism and an alluring sort of intimacy, the kind that unmistakably evokes personal experience through a fictional facade.
The Girlfriend Experience airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST on Starz.
★★★★ – Damn Fine Television