Even before the sex, nudity and drama, the first thing you may notice about “The Girlfriend Experience” is how colorless it is: sleek, hard-edged offices; cold urban apartments free of dust and life; black, gray, white or beige costumes. Even the characters almost seem to be bloodless.
You’ll see how fitting the show’s optics are when the first of its 13 episodes premieres on Sunday. The series may be about a law-firm intern who develops a lucrative sideline as an escort, but even the sex is either sad, mechanical or both.
Christine Reade (Riley Keough, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) is cynical, passionless and narcissistic even before she throws her lot in with Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo, “Lucky 7”), who runs a high-priced escort service. Her clients are wealthy men who, married or not, will pay for “the girlfriend experience,” which includes sex, of course, but also offers the fantasy of being with someone they can take to dinner and talk with, perhaps even present with an expensive bauble.
Billing herself as Chelsea Frayne, Christine slides easily into her new life. She likes sex, she has a borderline personality’s chameleon-like skill of becoming whom she has to be for a client, and she is seemingly incapable of actually falling for any of her clients, or anyone else, for that matter.
For a while, she is able to maintain distance between law school and her internship, on the one hand, and her better-paying after-hours job on the other. Inevitably, though, her separate worlds collide.
Christine/Chelsea is almost too smart to be taken advantage of by others, but her bicameral universe begins to teeter when she makes the mistake of alienating Jacqueline, teaching her that it’s not nice to anger the madam. A sexual fling with one of her bosses unleashes a scandal that threatens to bring her down, as well as the firm.
Yet Christine becomes the unlikely heroine of “The Girlfriend Experience” because, as icy and manipulative as she is, she is still morally superior to most of her law firm colleagues and certainly Jacqueline, because at least Christine doesn’t pretend to give a damn about anyone else in the world.
The series is based on the 2009 film of the same name by Steven Soderbergh, but one should add “loosely” here because the series, created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, successfully establishes its own distinct identity.
The series’ creators have daringly organized “Girlfriend” in 30-minute episodes. It’s not revolutionary, but it is rare for a drama’s episodes to be less than an hour long. In this case, it’s another brilliant decision by Seimetz and Kerrigan. The truth is that the series is so courageously airless, spending an hour with it each week could be very hard to take.
The performances are extraordinary, in spite of the fact the characters are all very similar – detached from emotion, honesty, sadness, shame and even desire by the airlessness of contemporary life.
The cynicism is unrelenting, but it’s also fundamental to the series. Without it, Christine would be in danger of realizing something hackneyed like “love is the answer,” or “the best things in life are free.” All well and good, but if she were to come to that realization, it would at the same time make her a victim, someone who had to be “redeemed” from something. She doesn’t need that. She may be many things, especially depending on the desires of her clients, but she is not a victim. In her way, she is a feminist heroine, and in its way “The Girlfriend Experience” is one of the best new series of the young year.
“The Girlfriend Experience” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Starz.