Starz’s new The Girlfriend Experience may be about the world of high-class prostitution, but if titillating sex is what you’re after, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 indie feature of the same name (starring former porn star Sasha Grey), this 13-episode TV series imagines the life of a call girl as one defined by cold detachment, boardroom-like negotiation, constant (self-)deception, fluctuating identity, and careerist ambition—all qualities that, according to the show, are found not only in its protagonist, but in the world of law, finance, real-estate and other white-collar professions. It’s a portrait of the greed, ruthlessness, and chilly erotic thrills of twenty-first century capitalism.
Conceived by director Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven and Keane) and actress Amy Seimetz, who share each half-hour episode’s writing duties and alternate behind-the-camera responsibilities, The Girlfriend Experience trains its icy gaze on Christine Reade (Riley Keough, most recently seen in Mad Max: Fury Road), a petite law student whose days are spent in classrooms and at a legal firm’s office, where she’s one of eight interns competing for two coveted permanent positions. From her first scenes, which find her picking up a man at a bar, having sex with him—and performing for his (but really her) pleasure—and then casually abandoning him afterwards, it’s clear Christine is a no-nonsense woman who wastes little time on extraneous concerns: she knows what she wants, and she aggressively goes after it.
Christine’s life changes with the realization that her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil)—a tall, pale seductress with an equally frosty demeanor—makes money working as an escort for Chicago’s rich and powerful (and, often, older) men. That job is executed via a classy online website and a pimp-like contracting agent (Alexandra Castillo’s Jacqueline) who procures clients for her. Intrigued by this venture, Christine soon begins selling herself to these captains of industry, in part because she’s dead broke and needs the cash, but also—more fundamentally—because she sees it as another way to market and exploit her services to the highest bidder. To Christine, whoring herself out as a swanky dinner companion and compliant bedroom partner is no different than acting as a slave to her law-firm boss David Tellis (Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks), with whom, in later episodes, she falls into a quasi-relationship that leads to thorny criminal dilemmas.
Kerrigan and Seimetz stage their series in cool, precise fashion. Scenes are clipped so that superfluous narrative tissue is non-existent; the in-between stuff of Christine’s day-to-day is suggested, but ignored as unimportant. Their characters, whether prostitutes, customers, high-rise executives, or up-and-coming millennials, all boast an affectless demeanor and vocal cadence that speaks to their single-minded, unemotional pursuit of their goals (making money, securing a job, keeping clients, getting a promotion). Kerrigan and Seimetz’s direction is like their writing—methodical, angular, and sharp, awash in images that use constricting doorways and isolating silhouettes to express their protagonist’s lonely, increasingly hemmed-in circumstances. They also display a real gift for close-ups attuned to their star’s eyes, which go hollow when she suddenly begins lying, or needs to “hide” in a given situation, or—as eventually becomes the case—when she finds her composure faltering under mounting pressure.
The Girlfriend Experience is almost exclusively set in luxurious, minimalist modern hotel suites, spartan apartments, and functionally chic offices—all of them marked by mirrors, glass partitions, and reflective surfaces that echo the characters’ severe temperaments. When Christine tells her visiting-from-out-of-town sister Annabelle (Seimetz) that she has no time for a romantic relationship because she prizes using her time productively, it’s an articulation of both her own nature and the environment in which she thrives, where lawyers (including a colleague played by 24 alum Mary Lynn Rajskub) are apt to bend the rules and sleep around in order to get ahead. In the show’s worldview, money motivates everything, with every interaction ultimately about currency (even a client’s phone call with his daughter), and the control it supposedly brings.
I say “supposedly” because, once it establishes its conceit, The Girlfriend Experience becomes a fascinating case study in volatile power dynamics. Using aliases and fake backstories, Christine gets off on her deceptive acts for clients, believing they afford her a measure of authority over them. Yet as she slowly discovers, the men she sees—some aloof, some infatuated, some downright stalker-esque—are themselves engaged in a similar game of role-playing. More unsettling to Christine, these men are often aware of what they’re doing, which limits how much influence her make-believe performances truly afford her. The great lie everyone in the show tells themselves is that they’re being honest, when the only truly honest thing they share is a belief in sex as a commodity, money as a goal, and power as a necessity.
The fact that such who’s-playing-who cons are also being perpetrated at Christine’s legal day job further underlines how this Starz series weaves a dramatic tangle of manipulative capitalist gamesmanship. The Girlfriend Experience becomes so consumed by threats to Christine’s livelihood that it often feels as if it might lose its frighteningly calm, steady hand and devolve into more contrived melodrama. Kerrigan and Seimetz’s stewardship, however, remains confident, allowing its more perilous twists and turns to emerge naturally from the illicit conditions Christine has created for herself. There’s a constant hum of danger to the show, much of it merely implied, as when Christine discovers that she’s suddenly alone in a room with a man who’s become obsessed with her (or has ulterior motives), and that no one will come to her rescue should things turn sour. Rarely have sex and legal work seemed like such kindred life-or-death vocations.
As assured as any new show on TV, and led by Keough’s magnetically calculating, disconnected lead performance, Kerrigan and Seimetz’s series is a nightmarish portrait of determination, deviance and domination. Propelled by the ecstasy that comes from asserting power over others in the name of profit, Christine willingly and repeatedly puts herself in harm’s way, and in doing so, she becomes a twisted embodiment of contemporary capitalist ambition. No matter the venue, says The Girlfriend Experience, “it’s all business.”