I don’t even know where to begin with The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz drama about a law student who has a secret life as a high-end call girl. It’s developed for TV by executive producer Steven Soderbergh, who directed a same-named film in 2009 that has almost nothing to do with this series. It’s overseen by two ferociously intelligent and uncompromising independent filmmakers, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, and its ominous electronic score is by Shane Carruth (Upstream Color). I love and respect it, I’ve already watched the whole first season and revisited individual episodes a second time, and the season finale three times. I think it’s easily one of the best shows of the year, and a major work by everyone involved, for reasons that I’ll allude to momentarily — though not in detail, because The Girlfriend Experience is actually four or five shows rolled into one, and a big part of its specialness resides in those moments where it morphs from one thing into another. Be warned that the first episode, maybe two, might inspire a “meh” reaction, but if you stick with it through the end of episode four, you’ll want to revisit those first two and pick out obvious bits of foreshadowing that you missed because you just assumed you knew what you were looking at.
The Girlfriend Experience is also the kind of show you can’t write about in detail in advance for a second, somewhat related reason: It’s partly, though not entirely, about sex, and what it means to be a sexual being. To truly engage with it means deciding to ignore complaints that it’s “merely” pornography, or “just” erotica, or “mainly” prurient, no matter what pretensions it might have toward being taken seriously as television or cinema or whatever else it aspires to be, and that of course it’s “not sexy” — these are all variants of the standard fallback position that American critics adopt when dealing with this sort of material. (1) The protagonist is a striking, fit 20-something woman who has a lot of sex for money, and (2) sometimes gets off on the sex, and (3) makes no apology for either of those things, and (4) is surrounded by hotel and restaurant and office interiors and external architectural facades that are all as immaculately lit and composed and unabashedly obsessed with surfaces as a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of body parts — these factors all contribute to the sense that The Girlfriend Experience is consciously blurring lines, indeed generally messing with us, by design.
Most sexual spectacles (I use that phrase here only because neither “pornography” nor “erotica” seem to fit) are terrible as drama, because the filmmakers either aren’t good at the non-sex stuff or their heart isn’t really in it anyway. Most dramas that try to add an element of explicit sexuality tend to collapse, too, for a different reason: There is no tradition in Western culture for entertainment that integrates serious investigation of human relationships and very frank sex, which means that when the sex appears onscreen, it feels like an interruption or detour, and the sight is so basically unfamiliar to us (as viewers of drama) that the tendency is to laugh uncomfortably (even performatively, to assure others that you’re not turned on, not at all) instead of engaging. The Girlfriend Experience tests all those reactions and perceptions. If you aren’t sure what to make of it, how serious or unserious it is, whether to be turned on or off by the sex, or how to interpret particular revelations about the heroine’s past and her psychological development, you’re watching it right.
This all automatically makes the show (drum roll) problematic, deal-breakingly so for many — this despite the facts that one of its co-creators, who co-wrote every episode and directed many of them, is a woman, and that the show is very deliberate about everything it shows us, and dogged about providing psychological and narrative context for each exchange, be it verbal, financial, or sexual. (The Girlfriend Experience is as much a legal and corporate thriller about power, money, and corruption as it is a drama about one young woman’s sexuality, psychological development, and halting forward progress in the world.) Bluntly put: This show is a think-piece powder keg, not calculatedly so, but as a by-product of the story it’s telling, the tonal and formal risks it takes from one minute to the next, and the opacity of its main character, the law student and sex worker Christine Reade (Riley Keough), who’s sort of what you’d get if you could combine Peggy Olson and Don Draper from Mad Men, shifted them to 2016, and placed them in and around a law office.
You could describe the show as pornographic and not be wrong: but it’s a loaded word, because it presupposes that explicit sex is by nature exploitative and “unnecessary” and “only” about turning bodies and practices into spectacle, even when there is a detailed and thoughtful story, and even when the main character’s sexual identity, preferences, and habits are central to every decision she makes. The word “erotica” doesn’t describe the series either, though, because the sex is observed with chilly distance (often literally; when Christine is naked, a scenario that happens far less often than you might think, the framing partially obscures her body via smoky foreground glass, silhouette effects, shadows, and tactical shifts in focus).
All of the performances are superb, starting with Keough, who is onscreen pretty much constantly and gives an internalized performance so richly detailed and exquisitely judged that it deserves favorable comparison with some of the great semi-opaque performances in movie and TV history. It is on par with Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver — yes, really. There’s fine backup work by Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks as Christine’s boss, David Tellis, who’s got dark secrets of his own; Mary Lynn Rajskub as Erin Roberts, another partner at the firm, and Seimetz as Catherine’s sister, Annabelle, a schoolteacher. Seimetz and Kerrigan, who directed all the episodes in season one, demonstrate a mastery of image and sound here that puts nearly every other current drama series to shame.
The Girlfriend Experience eventually does merge its secret call girl and secret corporate conspiracy story lines, but not in the way you’d expect. In its back half, it demonstrates a mid-period Sopranos-level confidence about taking the story in a direction that feels correct to the storytellers, even though it flies in the face of everything the serial TV playbook tells you about how to please a mass audience. Soderbergh and all the other filmmakers associated with this series are big fans of the European Art Cinema tradition, where key questions are posed but never answered because they are ultimately means to another end; if you can’t accept that, you should not watch the show, period.
I’m going to write at least two more pieces on this show as season one unfolds, maybe three. One of them will be a self-contained piece on the finale, which is the most daring, dense, allusive, and multilayered single episode of TV I’ve seen since the finale of season three of Louie (the one where he went to China). There were moments that I parsed almost frame by frame, at a shot-and-cut level, as if it were a soft-core answer to the Zapruder film; trust me when I say that whatever reaction you have on first viewing is probably the wrong one, and that the second reaction might not be right either, and that while a third viewing will click some of the gears into place, you will have to reconcile yourself to the idea that this show is not about to hand you anything. The relationship between The Girlfriend Experience and its audience is, like every sexual and financial and emotional exchange, at once more and less than a transaction, and the baggage you bring into it determines what you do or don’t get out of it.
*This article appears in the April 18, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.