We live in a funny time when it comes to television. The phrase “peak TV” has been used to describe the fact that there’s just too much quality content for everyone to consume and keep up with, as networks and streaming services contend to provide complex narratives for adults. Coupled with the fact that many of today’s programs are based upon movies complicate matters. It was hard to believe that a series based upon Fargo would be good, but it turned out to be one of the best shows in recent memory. But what about a show based upon a movie that wasn’t that good the first time around? I didn’t care for Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience in 2009, when the daring auteur cast porn star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort. Somehow, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan took the middling source material and crafted one of the most compelling dramas of 2016.
Riley Keough stars as Christine Reade, a young woman studying law in Chicago. Christine has just taken an internship at a prestigious law firm, working under David Tellis (Paul Sparks) and Erin Roberts (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Studying and working an internship leaves Christine perpetually behind on her rent. It’s not long before her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) introduces her to the subculture of high-priced escorts, where Avery makes thousands in a single night providing companionship and sex to the power brokers of the big city. It doesn’t take long for Christine to make the fateful choice to join this world. Christine isn’t pressured or forced in this occupation, it’s a willful choice.
The Golden Age of Television, as it is so often called, has given rise to the anti-hero, and Christine Reade is the latest in the long line of captivating anti-heroes to take center stage on the small screen. In many regards, there are similarities between Christine and the most famous of the recent anti-heroes in Walter White from Breaking Bad. Each begins with a criminal enterprise as a means to improve their class status before becoming seduced by the money and power that followed.
Christine becomes duplicitous, thriving off the power afforded her in her new position. She’s living a double life as a student and intern during the day and as the high-priced escort at night. But soon the distinction between the two begins to fade and the same cutthroat tendencies she employs in her nighttime work spills over into the daytime. Tired of the double standards imposed upon women in the workplace, Christine begins to use her sexuality as weapon – and she’s more than aware of the two sides to the sword. Maintaining the professional façade at the workplace becomes tricky when she’s forced to contend with obsessive clients and their vindictive streaks. Meanwhile, the firm where she’s working isn’t exactly a beacon of ethical behavior, and Christine is able to use that to her advantage in her never-ending lust for more and more power over those who stand against her.
Having previously only seen Riley Keough as one of Immortan Joe’s wives in Mad Max: Fury Road, I found her performance in The Girlfriend Experience to be a revelatory breakthrough. In a moment’s notice, Keough can take Christine from a quiet, hard-working intern with cold exterior into a sultry vixen. And just as quickly, Keough returns to that cold veneer as she’s concluded her business. There’s strong sexual content in The Girlfriend Experience, and it ranges from quite sexy to quite unsettling depending on the particular scene. Even as the character of Christine’s occupation is that of a sex worker, the show does a wonderful job of not making the character purely about sex. At a certain point you begin to wonder if Christine finds pleasure from sex that isn’t derived from power, and the season’s final episode suggests that the series might go further into that aspect of the character in the impending second season.
All 13 episodes of The Girlfriend Experience are written and directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, and the duo mines the material for maximum effectiveness. Sometimes episodes end on cliffhangers that are quickly resolved in the next episode. Other times loose ends dangle for a few episodes, swaying over the characters the Sword of Damocles. Seimetz and Kerrigan craft a tense moral tale of power and sexuality, and amplify those themes with strong direction that keeps a certain distance from its characters. In the special features on the Blu-ray, which I might add are relatively sparse, Seimetz claims that their intent is to maintain a certain distance as a means to keep the viewer feeling as if they’re peering in on something they shouldn’t, and there is a real voyeuristic quality to the series that amplifies the seedy nature of its subject matter.
The Girlfriend Experience is truly top notch television geared for adults. It’s a well-acted, well-written, and remarkably well-directed series that avoids falling into problematic elements that could befall any series treading in such risqué waters. As much as the series is about the phenomenal performance from Riley Keough, it’s the talent of Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan that elevate the material beyond simple scintillating sexuality. They’ve made The Girlfriend Experience a character study, a moral drama, and simply one of the most captivating pieces of television to grace the screen in 2016.
The Girlfriend Experience
A stunning character study of power and weaponized sexuality, The Girlfriend Experience is one of TV’s most striking dramas of 2016.