‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Seduces Viewers With Quiet Intensity

Halfway between lifestyle porn and actual porn, The Girlfriend Experience finds eroticism in everything except sex. Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz direct their camera’s leering gaze on impossibly chic restaurants, sleek modern offices forged from streakless metal and perfectly reflective glass, and other modernist luxuries with something close to infatuation. But in the many scenes depicting high-end call girl Chelsea hard at work, she reads as dispassionate, though never lacking in intensity. Though sex may be a meaningful act to her, it’s not an intimate one. As she straddles a constantly rotating array of clients — it’s hardly a coincidence that she prefers to be on top — she takes on a distance runner’s expression of detached determination. A saying usually misattributed to Oscar Wilde goes, “Everything is about sex except sex, which is about power.” Kevin Spacey recently invoked adage on House of CardsThe Girlfriend Experience doesn’t need to make things so explicit.

The press notes playfully state that Starz’s outstanding new program was “suggested by” the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name, which cast pornographic actress Sasha Grey as an exclusive escort getting clutch fiscal advice from her johns on the eve of the economic collapse. Though one could argue that the role called for it, Grey’s affectless flatness and the loosely avant-garde style alienated most viewers. But the alias of “Chelsea” is the only literal bond between the film and the show, with a new leading lady (Riley Keough is positively hypnotic as Christine, a law intern who tries the “Chelsea” moniker on like a thousand-dollar Givenchy cocktail dress) and the action migrating from New York to Chicago.

The clearest links between the two are thematic, matters of ideology more than story; The Girlfriend Experience takes the same ambivalent stance towards prostitution as a means of seizing power for women in a climate dominated by the rich, who mostly happen to be men, while also recognizing the danger inherent in the oldest profession and addressing the deep emotional ramifications head-on. In the back half of the 13-episode season available in full on Starz starting Sunday, a colleague accuses Christine of getting paid to get nasty. She cuts back, uncharacteristically venomous: “Everybody’s paid to be everywhere. It’s called an economy.”

That burst of cynicism represents the culmination of a rich, gradual transformation that the show traces with elegantly even pacing. Seimetz and Kerrigan incorporate plenty of corporate intrigue to give the season the feeling of propulsion and a skeleton of a plot, but greater rewards await viewers who approach the season as a protracted coming-of-age tale for Christine. She begins the season with a beguiling combination of naïveté and worldliness, and starting with the first toe she dips into the turbulent whirlpool of girlfriend-experience work, she continuously learns just how little she knows of the world. She’s a textbook Type-A personality, pathologically organized and cultivating Eve Harrington-level ambition. But in the grand tradition of TV shows about compartmentalizing personalities harboring a dark secret, her personal and professional lives bleed over into one another and threaten to destroy everything.

Just as “Chelsea” learns that the key to entrancing men lies with withholding and indulging, the most refreshing aspect of The Girlfriend Experience is its willingness to make its audience work for it. They place a great deal of trust in their audience to keep up with minimal dialogue to guide them, conveying crucial information through glances, pointed POV shots, or in some breathtaking instances, juxtaposed edits. And this commitment to obliqueness, besides corresponding neatly with Christine’s resolute interiority as a character, also extends to the show’s general outlook on life.

With a subtlety and guardedness not seen since Mad Men (another show keenly aware of the way corporations deplete and degrade their composite members), Seimetz and Kerrigan slink around conclusive truths about human nature without pouncing on any one of them. Prostitution, even completely elective prostitution conducted with absolute control, empowers and endangers. Clients can be sweet, pathetic, contemptible or actually attractive, sometimes all at once. Businesses are evil, but maybe they don’t have to be, unless they do. Christine enters the season laser-focused, dispensing carefully calibrated answers during the interview that lands her an exclusive law internship in the pilot. By the season’s end, all she knows for sure is that everything worth knowing is unknowable. Most incredibly, Seimetz and Kerrigan communicate this by showing Christine staring at various reflective surfaces, and it works.

The show’s by no means perfect; a subplot involving the always-excellent Kate Lyn Sheil as Christine’s gal pal falls off with little warning, and the camera occasionally crosses the line from clinical observance into objectification when showing Keough’s body. Regardless, Seimetz and Kerrigan have still created a mesmerizing character study, an uncommonly accomplished work of film craft on a level seldom seen on TV, and a timely document of the American economy at a moment of critical flux. And like its enigmatic heroine, its resistance to being known is the most seductive quality of all.