A line in White Oleander, the devastatingly lush novel by Janet Fitch, comes to mind while watching The Girlfriend Experience. As Finch’s teenage narrator describes the feeling that her crush brings, she says, “I felt like an undeveloped photograph that he was printing, my image rising to the surface under his gaze.” The idea of love pushing a person into a new, different state is oft-explored in pop culture. But what does a person lose when she becomes someone else for the sake of romance? Or sex? Or power? How does that change her?
The Girlfriend Experience will live or die by how it concerns itself with those questions. The pilot episode, “Entry,” has a studied, muted vulgarity to it: bare breasts, expensive clothing, curse words, and a whole lot of (supposedly) adult dynamics. Will it end up being empty spectacle? Possibly, but “spectacle” doesn’t seem like the right word. There isn’t anything truly visceral or bold about this show just yet.
The Girlfriend Experience has been brought to television by executive producer Steven Soderbergh, but don’t worry if you haven’t seen his 2009 film with the same name. The two don’t share much of anything. For starters, the adaptation is spearheaded by showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who co-wrote “Entry.” Under Seimetz’s direction, the pilot is dominated by a nearly oppressive color palette of delicate pastels: Beige, bright white, rare blues, and grays. Shane Carruth’s electronic score provides an accompanying sense of dread; uncertainty looms over the whole episode. I was never sure if a scene would turn me on or make me sick. At the center of this slick, cold creation is Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a law student who works as an intern at Kirkland & Allen, a top-tier Chicago firm. Under the influence of her classmate, Avery Suhr (Kate Lyn Sheil), who has a lucrative arrangement with an older man, Christine is slowly pulled into the lifestyle of high-end call girls.
An early seduction-and-sex sequence establishes the broad strokes of the character. At a crowded bar, Christine makes a beeline for a stranger. When he doesn’t hear her first pass, she leans closer to his ear and puts it bluntly: She just wants to have sex. As for the ensuing one-night stand, there isn’t much sexiness or passion to it. It’s hard to even tell who is supposed to enjoy it. When Christine says, “I like you,” it’s less about her feelings and more about the reaction her words will elicit. She tells him she wants him to watch, and so he does, as she masturbates and tosses her head back in ecstasy. “Tell me what you like about this,” she orders, moments before the scene fades to her hasty exit. Was she actually enjoying herself, or just trying to get a rise out of this man?
When Christine sees him again, while getting drinks with Avery, she doesn’t even remember his name. As far as pop culture goes, it’s rare to see women act so pointedly uninterested in male affection and romance — and it certainly leaves an impression here. Within minutes, Christine is set up to be bold, ambitious, and brutally honest. “Entry” shows us how she operates: She quickly sizes people up, then figures out what they want from her, what she’s willing to give, and what she can get in return. This boldness doesn’t translate in obvious ways to Riley Keough’s performance; Keough brings an edge to the role, but also plays Christine as emotionally distant enough to raise doubt about where our loyalties should lie.
Seimetz and Kerrigan are sending us a clear message: Christine isn’t like the women around her. She’s worlds apart from the bubbly, slightly embarrassed woman who slept with her roommate, whom Christine finds in her kitchen one morning. She’s even dissimilar from Avery. They may share a hollow sharpness, but Avery says “I love you” with the same tone she uses to blithely discuss her arrangement. Christine isn’t willing to go that far. Not yet. We also get a peek into Christine’s family life during a tense call she shares with her mother. We’ve glimpsed the character’s humanity, even as it’s shrouded by a borderline apathetic attitude.
Though it’s clear that The Girlfriend Experience is handsomely crafted — and has tremendous promise — its debut doesn’t present much we haven’t seen before in shows and films covering similar subject matter like Belle de Jour, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Irma la Douce, and even an early Sex and the City episode “The Power of Female Sex.” When pop culture tells stories about high-end call girls, they tend to blur together: a pretty, twentysomething white woman entertains older men, usually married. These men are almost always lawyers, and they wield their wealth with outrageous nonchalance. Any attempt at “love” is transactional, and defined largely by sex. Sometimes it’s played as humorous, other times as morally depraved. The Girlfriend Experience opts for outright nihilism.
“Entry” is careful to establish that every relationship is a transaction, which seems like a narrow way to look at human interaction — so much so that it’s worth wondering how much honesty exists within such a typical brand of cynicism. We certainly get a good sense of Christine’s character in terms of how she views other people, but we’re only given mere hints about how she views herself. As the series continues, let’s hope it turns inward to explore that more often.
Despite its faults, The Girlfriend Experience presents three particularly interesting details in its premiere. Let’s go through them, one by one.
The anonymous metropolis. The Girlfriend Experience was filmed in Chicago, but it has none of the flavor of the city. Seimetz employs visual motifs — glass facades, clean lines, bright lights, and upscale bars — which make the show feel like it could be set in any major metropolitan area. And that’s the point. The Girlfriend Experience is obsessed with surfaces, from the smooth texture of a fish tank to Christine’s superficial talent at sizing people up.
The office romance. It’s pretty obvious that something will develop between Christine and David Tells (Paul Sparks), the partner she’s been assigned to at Kirkland & Allen. He’s pretty much the only person who cuts through Christine’s fine-tuned swagger. He also seems to have an odd relationship with fellow lawyer Erin Roberts (Mary Lynn Rajskub). From what Christine gleans through the glass of his office, David and Erin shift from vague antagonism to friendship over the course of the episode.
The feminist perspective. What most interested me about “Entry” was Christine’s relationship with male humor. Despite the many pallid jokes that men make, Christine doesn’t laugh. (Not even for David.) Instead, she just dryly tosses off, “That’s funny.” She doesn’t try to comfort the male ego at all. How will this translate into her work as a call girl? Women are told from birth, both culturally and personally, that the ways men think about them are crucial to survival. Christine’s disinterest — her unwillingness to be a nice, nonthreatening woman who laughs at uncomfortable jokes — is a fascinating character detail. It also provides “Entry” with its sole flash of a distinct point of view.
Of course, “Entry” is just a taste of the life that Christine will eventually immerse herself in. The episode ends with her joining Avery on a double date, of sorts, with two older men: Avery’s partner is married, and the other one is an estate lawyer. These are the kind of men who say, when a prosaic problem arises, “I have people to take care of that,” and don’t think it sounds like a joke. Listening to Avery’s earlier advice, Christine takes on a different name. When pressed, she tells her “date” that she knows Avery — who’s assumed the name Ashley — because she’s her yoga instructor.
Avery/Ashley eventually leaves her alone with the man. (This makes me wonder about the state of their friendship, which, like everything else, is a bit hollow.) With envelope of cash in hand and the message that they’re just getting drinks, Christine faces two very different paths. “You want to get out of here?” the estate lawyer asks. We don’t see her answer, but we don’t have to. It’s written all over her face, as she once again makes a calculation. Of course she’ll say yes. She was always going to say yes. If The Girlfriend Experience chooses to explore why Christine does this, how the decision relates to the way she sees herself, and what this all suggests about power, identity, and female sexuality, it may actually find something new to say itself.