'The Girlfriend Experience': TV Review

The Girlfriend Experience still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A solid, dark drama with lofty artistic ambitions.

Riley Keough plays a law student who takes a job as a high-end escort in Starz's new series based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film.

It will be interesting to see if viewers look at Starz's new drama series, The Girlfriend Experience, executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and inspired by his 2009 film, in the same way the creators do.

If nothing else, The Girlfriend Experience is an upscale drama filled with the kind of premium cable content — the ever-present nudity and sex — that's part of the deal when you shell out extra for a channel.

On the surface, you've got a story about a smart, beautiful young woman intrigued by the idea of ultra-high-end escort services. It's a familiar concept, not just from the movie it's based on but from any number of similarly themed projects — whether glossy like Pretty Woman or graduated grit like Indecent Proposal, Leaving Las Vegas or the Showtime television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl — where transactional sex is explored as either romantic, abusive or opportunistic.

But if co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz have their way, The Girlfriend Experience will be perceived entirely differently — as more experiment than experience — because the exquisitely detailed and perception-attuned series approaches its subject matter without judgment. Kerrigan (Keane, Rebecca H.) and Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine), two indie directors that Soderbergh hand-picked, co-wrote all 13 episodes and split the directing duties (seven episodes for Kerrigan, six for Seimetz) and thus were in sync in taking the series (billed as "suggested by" the original movie) and making it their own.

The element that's ultimately intriguing about what they've done here is their attempt to rejigger the narrative of "transactional relationships" so that neither the writing nor the filmmaking leads the viewer to a defining sentiment about the decisions central character Christine Reade (Riley Keough) makes in her life. Christine is a second-year law student at Chicago-Burnham Law School whose study-focused personality has driven her to land an internship at the prestigious Kirkland & Allen firm. Friend and fellow student Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) becomes a magnetic distraction for Christine because she's involved in the "GFE" world, where escorts get paid lavishly to lavish "the girlfriend experience" on successful men who want more than just sex — they want an emotional experience that amounts to baggage-free intimacy, where their money buys them a beautiful woman to not only sleep with but unburden to. It's a fantasy world of glossy perfection.

Kerrigan and Seimetz calculatedly offer no typical explanation for why Christine, in this instance, falls into this world. Rather than being "broken" in some way (past physical abuse, low self-esteem, addiction, etc.), she's a top student from a stable family whose pre-GFE world had already included casual sex on her terms — a kind of Tinder-era embrace of guilt-free sex that's a generational norm. There's certainly a financial incentive in play — law school is expensive, Chicago ain't cheap and internships are a hindrance. Looking at Avery's more luxurious lifestyle is the tipping point for Christine to embrace the GFE world.

From that moment forward, there will no doubt be a divide in The Girlfriend Experience as a series. While Christine's work at the law firm creates an interesting secondary plot (with nice turns by co-stars Paul Sparks and Mary Lynn Rajskub), this series is really about having sex and getting paid for it — and there's eye candy galore, as expected. Seen from that perspective, The Girlfriend Experience doesn't seem particularly inventive, even though the writing is strong and Keough (daughter of Lisa Marie and granddaughter of Elvis Presley) is a magnetic presence precisely because she knows how to make Christine interesting as a character and not just a body; Keough's expressive face is able to infuse the series with something deeper — she makes Christine at once coldly selfish and then believably alive to the men in her life, a manipulative lie that gives her a sense of power and control.

The Girlfriend Experience could easily have veered off in the wrong direction, portraying Christine as a victim, which has been done to death, or triumphant, evil puppet-master, which would also be boringly one-dimensional. But Kerrigan and Seimetz have made interesting decisions that, if you choose to look for them, make The Girlfriend Experience something more intriguingly ambitious.

Cinematographer Steven Meizler, who shot all 13 episodes, doesn't let the camera influence perception — he's in reserve, framing shots as if viewers are in the same room, in a chair to the side, or walking down halls and into restaurants and rooms right behind the characters. The creators wanted that sense of "spying" on Christine's actions so that viewers can decide for themselves whether there's a right or wrong moral judgment in play, whether Christine is becoming (or was already) a kind of sociopath — something her character brings up when her sister (played by Seimetz) notes that the younger Christine has always been selfish. Has Christine fallen for the kind of power that allows her to manipulate people and profit from it (while also enjoying it on a physical and intellectual level)?

Keough's outstanding performance makes the whole thing work, make no mistake. But Kerrigan, Seimetz and Meizler weave a visually evocative backdrop, using only natural light, location-based shooting and a color scheme that allows for the intimacy of the writing to come out and help shape things. There's a neutral, in-room look to the whole thing — the sex and the nonsexual emotional moments (basically very expensive conversations about life with Christine, who has the ability to make the men paying for her services feel like they've been with her for years), are given equal weight. At some point — although there's a strong storyline at the law firm — The Girlfriend Experience becomes mostly about Christine's emotional patchwork helping, or rather controlling and influencing, a series of male customers; she's the one in control, fixing something more broken in their own lives than in hers.

Of course, viewers will have to embrace that angle — looking at the exploitation of feelings as a trick more powerful than a sexual trick. They'll have to find interesting what Christine is doing when she's not in bed — which is the driving force of what Kerrigan and Seimetz are after — rather than getting distracted by Keough's naked body.

Do they succeed? Or is The Girlfriend Experience really just more titillation about pricey call girls? By being motivationally neutral — especially in the directing — there's certainly a risk that viewers will default to sentiments expressed in other films or shows, rather than emphatically embracing the nuance of the experiment.

But ultimately for Starz, maybe the series works both ways.

Cast: Riley Keough, Paul Sparks, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kate Lyn Sheil
Creators: Amy Seimetz, Lodge Kerrigan

Airs: Sundays, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)