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Its protagonist may be a beautiful college student exploring the addictive business of “transactional sex,” but there’s no heat between the sheets of The Girlfriend Experience. That’s by design. This expansion of the Steven Soderbergh film about a Manhattan call girl (played by real adult actress Sasha Grey) is as compelling as it is icy cool, a show that observes the fallacies and fantasies of human desire through the eyes of a woman so single-mindedly careerist that she chooses to commodify her own carnal appetites, reworking pleasure as business with shrewd detachment.
If that sounds alienating, that’s because the series’ ostensibly salacious premise – girl meets world, world pimps out girl, girl finds that this is to her liking – is one of its many acts of narrative subterfuge. Writer-directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, each taking the reins from Soderbergh to tackle one half of the season, gradually make it clear that what turns them on is more than simple premium-cable titillation – if one were to classify The Girlfriend Experience as a psychosexual character study, rest assured the least significant component of that descriptor would be “sexual.” If the promise of erotic kicks are what draw curious viewers at first, the enduring opacity of said girl, the reserved and ruthless Christine Reade (Riley Keough), and the unnerving sterility of her surroundings, will be what hooks them.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of sex in The Girlfriend Experience. By premiere’s end, Christine is diving headfirst into the escort trade, encouraged by her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) but soon besotted with the business – and taking steps to rise to its highest tier – for her own reasons. Initially suspicious of the industry’s legality, she soon disregards such concerns and refashions herself as a sympathetic seductress, one willing to treat her clients’ lonely hearts and raging libidos in equal measure.
This tactic – surprise surprise – soon wins her an exceedingly loyal customer base, and Christine relishes the success, adding as many new clients as she can while taking great pains to ensure previous ones remain almost dangerously enamored of her. The Girlfriend Experience, commendably, never leers at its protagonist during the show’s abundance of sex scenes, instead using Christine’s trysts and post-coital pillow-talk to tease out the ferocious motion of internal gears whirring away behind her placid features.
Kerrigan and Seimetz are more nakedly fetishistic in their treatment of towering, gleaming glass, the one constant in Christine’s lifestyle. The Girlfriend Experience lingers on shimmering glass partitions in the offices of the law firm where Christine interns. It never fails to impart the alluring extravagance of the curved chalices from which she and her equally materialistic friends (or colleagues, as Christine says, occasionally balking at the notion of friendship) drink their daily wine. And the show’s obsession with reflective surfaces, from bathroom mirrors to glinting skyscraper exteriors, is its most stable, lasting relationship.
It’s this hollow, modernist aesthetic, begetting a frosty and forbidding tone that is in places reminiscent of American Psycho, that best exemplifies the soul (and soullessness) of The Girlfriend Experience. This is a show about the emptiness of intimacy in the 21st century, about how our respective cravings – for intimacy, economy, agency, and some form of equilibrium between the three – can both blind and compel us, particularly when acted upon beneath a veneer of privilege, for profit.
That’s a fascinating, complicated, often self-contradicting subject, so it makes sense that The Girlfriend Experience is more wont to examine questions of human relationships and sexual politics than to answer them. This isn’t a show concerned with conclusions; it never passes judgment on Christine or even really gets to the heart of what’s driving her choices throughout the series. No one seems to know quite what’s going on under her skin, even the show’s creators.
Keough wears that ambiguity as comfortably as she does Christine’s seemingly endless closet of workplace attire, her blank stares and clipped line deliveries sketching an immaculate, unnerving portrait of Christine as a consummate professional who has forgotten – or perhaps fears – feeling any emotion that doesn’t directly benefit her. It’s a masterful, mesmerizing, impossibly tightly-wound performance that pulls off the incredible balancing act of holding our attention even while rebuffing it.
Over the course of the first season, there’s precious little information about Christine’s interior life, though what does emerge from the darkness is intriguing – a visit from her sister (Seimetz) prompts Christine to wonder aloud whether she’s a sociopath, and a visit home late in the run mentions her “selfish” tendencies as a child. But Keough’s work soars most notably in capturing the oblique fog of mystery that surrounds the character, keeping the veil in place even while occasionally piercing it with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimmers of humanity.
As The Girlfriend Experience progresses, it only grows more assured in its depiction of Christine and her distinctly capitalist stratagems, as well as the more overarching relationships between assorted forms of power and the toll that possessing them can take on a person. Studying the character as she strives to navigate two separate worlds, linked by their shared fixation on manipulation, often times feels like an exercise in voyeurism, sinister and seductive in equal measure. That’s surely intentional. This is a haunting, beautiful, indelible nightmare of a series, the kind you’ll find yourself unwilling to wake up from.
Cold, canny, and compelling, The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating study of the relationships between intimacy, economy, and agency.