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Starz’s ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ represents the downside of binge TV

Senior Television Writer
04.08.16 18 Comments

Starz

The binge forgives a lot. But it doesn't forgive everything.

When you watch a lot of episodes of the same show in a row, it can be like inhaling a stack of Pringles, where you're not overly troubled by the flaws or the sameness in the product because it's just so easy to keep going on to the next one. I often get comments and emails from viewers who came to shows on Netflix or Amazon years after I initially reviewed them, expressing some version of, “I can see why this part bothered you watching week to week, but I barely noticed it in the binge.” I've experienced it myself, even with non-streaming shows: when Showtime sent critics the first six episodes of Billions, I found myself mainly caught up in it because there were more episodes I could watch instantly to see what happened next; when I watched the seventh episode on its own many weeks later, I had a hard time caring much about anything that was happening, and haven't checked in since.

But even in the full rush of the marathon, it's hard to ignore some of the current flaws of the binge model, which often treats an entire season as one long episode, rather than providing distinct and interesting structures for each installment. Nearly every Netflix show suffers from what Mo Ryan has called “streaming drift,” where the show rambles because there's not enough plot to fill all those hours, and because abandoning the episodic model doesn't provide a new discipline in its place. Most of the time, the drift starts deep enough into a season that you'll be too invested to stop, but it's there not only in many streaming shows, but in shows from more traditional outlets that are aspiring to be more Netflix or Amazon-esque. 

Take Starz's The Girlfriend Experience. It's debuting in the old-fashioned way on Sunday night at 8, but Starz is also going to make the whole 13-episode season available immediately to subscribers via On Demand and the Starz Play app, as premium cable outfits continue to dip their toes into the streaming waters to see how it affects their business model.

Premiering the whole season at once is the right move for The Girlfriend Experience, which is so sedate, chilly, and light on incident that it would be unbearable to watch one episode a week (or, in its first weekend, two), with not enough of a hook to pull the viewer back for a new half-hour after a seven day break. Watched in chunks, though, it can be more absorbing, thanks to Riley Keough's lead performance as Christine Reade, a Chicago law student moonlighting as an escort, and thanks to the anthropological tone created by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who co-write every episode and take turns directing them.

The series is inspired by the 2009 film by Steven Soderbergh (who's an executive producer), but not a direct adaptation, and it takes the viewer step-by-step through Christine's entry into this strange business, and how it evolves from being a lucrative part-time job to becoming more important than her studies or her internship at a prestigious local firm. Seimetz and Kerrigan are more interested in process than motivation: there's a lot of talk about the logistics of the trade, but Christine's feelings about it are kept hidden from us, and on some level even from her. At one point, she asks her sister if she's abnormally selfish, or even a sociopath, but for the most part she simply comes to accept the job as something she's good at not only because men find her beautiful (Keough is the granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley), but because she's so lacking in introspection that she can easily become whatever her clients want her to be.

Keough is excellent, and the show's style – scenes mostly shot in natural light, conversation kept to a bare minimum – can be hypnotic. But there isn't remotely enough story to justify the length of this season, even with the episodes only being 30 minutes or less.

There's a story arc of sorts at the law firm, involving Paul Sparks and Mary Lynn Rajskub as partners who may be up to something shady, and there are suggestions that Christine's day job and her night one have certain unsavory elements in common, but on the whole it feels like something to keep her occupied when she's not on outcalls. And the escort work begins to feel repetitive in a hurry, and also strangely-paced. Clients who ultimately don't play a big role in Christine's career ascension get a lot of early screen time, while one who throws a grenade into her life is introduced in mid-relationship, right as things are already taking a bad turn.

Soderbergh's film ran only 77 minutes, and while there's enough meat here to justify something less skimpy – at least a longer film, and maybe even a British-style 6-episode season – the series only keeps going and going because it can(*), and perhaps because Seimetz, Kerrigan, and the executives at Starz assumed that once viewers started watching, they wouldn't be able to stop.

(*) Since most Netflix shows run at least a couple of episodes too long, and have to do dumb things (like the Jessica Jones coffee shop scene) to pad things out, I'm often asked why the seasons aren't shorter. The answer to that is mainly on the money side: not only are the cast and crew paid by the episode (and thus incentivized to make as much as they can without exhausting themselves), but the streaming business model benefits the more time you spend watching a particular series (and, thus, using the service itself).

I powered through to the end because the first few episodes were promising enough that I held out hope Seimetz and Kerrigan might find a way to, like the creative teams on some of the better streaming shows, make the whole feel greater than the sum of its somewhat lumpy parts. But no, The Girlfriend Experience presents 13 extremely minor variations on the same experience, again and again, because the audience has been conditioned by now to watch it all, whether it's worth finishing or not.

The binge forgives many things, but The Girlfriend Experience is a prime example of how even this relatively new form is starting to feel as complacent in its flaws as the one it's so eager to replace.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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