It has been said that we have three lives - our public life, our private life, and our secret life. The first is what the rest of the world sees, the second, reserved for our family and friends, and the last what we keep hidden away. Properly calibrated, these elements blend harmoniously, if not always seamlessly. What happens when this balance is off kilter is the subject of Starz TV’s extraordinary drama The Girlfriend Experience.
The show takes its title and the barest outline of its plot from the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. Adapted for television, we meet second-year law student Christine Reade, who just landed an internship at a prominent law firm and dreams of a career as a patent attorney but is enticed into selling her body by her classmate Avery, who has connected with a wealthy businessman taking care of her every need.
The show quickly finds its stride with confident writing, directing, and acting. Avery melts down shortly after we meet her and a former boyfriend is seen briefly in the show’s pilot and never heard from again. Christine is unbothered by the moral ambiguity of her work, but her motivations are never fully revealed. Sure, there is some aspect of the struggling law student about her, but money does not appear to be the primary driver. Is it power? Control? Even as she connects with a madam who books her clients, Christine chafes at the 30% fee she is charged. Why not just do it all herself?
A show exploring a taboo subject like prostitution could easily fall into kitsch or cliché, but in a drama such as this, which relies almost entirely on the strength of its lead actress, casting Riley Keough was critical. She is fearless and brilliant, and not just in the raw, almost pornographic sex scenes that populate nearly every episode, but in expressing inexorable ambition that shifts from dreams of a high powered legal career into ones of being a high powered escort. As her silent passenger on that trip, it is easy for viewers to judge or question, but Keough’s performance is too self-assured to be second guessed. Because Christine is such a practiced liar, little if any of what we see or hear from her can be taken at face value. There is always an angle, a hustle, another option she is exploring, turning over the possibilities in her head like a Texas Hold ‘Em player considering an opponent’s bet. Even in the midst of the season’s major pivot point, the reveal of an incriminating video of her with a client, it is difficult to discern whether the panic attack she has is an act to garner pity or a legitimate reaction to her entire life getting nuked.
Keough’s cipher-like ability made me think of her character as an interesting counter point to Mad Men’s Don Draper. Don constantly strove to hide the flawed, insecure man and dark secrets that haunted him. Christine acknowledges the artifice and leaves it to others to engage in the self-delusion necessary for them to believe she is, pick your poison, attracted to them, interested in what they have to say, or engaged on any level. Whereas Don used his shiny veneer as a sleight of hand to avoid having anyone try to get beneath the surface, Christine throws it in your face with a blinking red light warning you not to look. Like Don, Christine is an admitted loner who does not feel or process emotions in the way others do and has no friends. Her choice of profession forces her to fake her feelings, but she is adept at the charade, turning on her persona when the door opens and shutting it off as soon as she walks back out until it is time to start the act all over again.
Beyond the interpersonal sex, there is the underlying theme of isolation. Masturbation, that lonely form of sexual gratification that was for so long treated like a dirty unspoken secret, is a central act in the show. Mostly it is Christine doing the diddling, often with a man watching, but at a remove, via a computer screen. It allows for connection but not intimacy. It is only when she is alone with her own thoughts that the act feels erotic and not mechanical.
Her clients have their own shaming instincts - the series finale is centered around an elaborate cuckold role play where her client dashes off to the bathroom to jack off as Christine and a man paid to be her “boyfriend” have sex on a couch. Other clients ask her to leave as soon as the sex is over, riddled with their own issues of guilt or impropriety. It is heavy stuff and mining these darker recesses of our secret lives can be uncomfortable viewing. Faced with the things we desire, GFE flips the script and asks what you are willing to sacrifice in the service of snuffing out your loneliness or unhappiness or indulge your own hedonism.
The show’s icy sterility only serves to enhance that sense of isolation. Interiors either have the shaded look of a David Fincher movie or are European modernist, geometry in stainless steel, prefab plastic or marble. The hotels and buildings are awash in floor to ceiling windows and city scape panoramas that enhance the voyeuristic vibe of the show. The conversations are clipped, staccato, and invariably transactional. Layered over all of it is an ethereal soundtrack that jibes with the ultra modernist look. It is arresting and eye catching, a style and sensibility that matches the rest of the show’s production.
If I have one critique of this otherwise outstanding freshman effort it is, to borrow from the subject matter of the show, that it blew its load a bit too quickly. Instead of amping up the intrigue and suspense of whether Christie could juggle the demands of law school, her internship, and her side gig as an escort, the worlds collide a little more than halfway through the season when a jilted client leaks a video of Christine having sex with him to her co-workers and family and Christine retaliates against the managing partner at the law firm (who she also slept with) by releasing a video of the two of them having sex.
The remaining episodes have the feel of an uneven coda. The guy who leaked the video that ends up blowing up Christine’s life is not seen again and David, the managing partner at the firm who is fired in the wake of Christine’s launching of her own nukes (their sex video) is left dangling as he interviews for other jobs. The case he was colluding on is left unresolved as is his replacement at the top of the firm’s hierarchy. Instead, we get an episode focused on Christine’s return home (to a stern, angry mother and a slightly more sympathetic father) and a teaser of the direction she intends to go - further down the escorting rabbit hole (she withdraws from law school with no plans to return) and with a wider menu of activities.
During a side jaunt to Toronto in the wake of her exposure, Christine ends up in a weird hotel scene with two other escorts and a coked-to-the-gills client. The following day she and one of the other women meet for a drink and they lament their respective situations - Christine is trying to build a customer base while the other woman, a six year veteran, is trying to shed clients but the lure of easy money is too great. It is a not-so-subtle effort at the cautionary tale, a warning to get out while you still can, but The Girlfriend Experience makes clear the journey is just beginning.
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