The Girlfriend Experience’s 2nd Season Is a Mixed Bag

L-R: Anna Friel and Louisa Krause. Photo: Starz Entertainment, LLC

The first season of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience was one of the boldest premium-cable projects in years, a half-hour drama with the same title as a film almost nobody saw: a 2009 Steven Soderbergh indie feature about an escort moving through a world of obnoxious finance guys. The TV version had nothing to do with the movie save for the choice of an escort as protagonist. Its first season fused nearly pornographic erotica with aspects of the corporate and legal thriller and the psychological drama; the writing and direction channeled classic 20th-century art-house flicks like Persona and The Passenger. Soderbergh served mainly as a creative matchmaker, pairing two well-regarded indie voices — veteran writer-director Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven) and actor and short-film maker Amy Seimetz (Stranger Things, The Killing) — then stepping aside. The first season starred Riley Keough as Christine, a law clerk, law student, and secret call girl whose trysts drew her into a corporate conspiracy, publicly humiliated her, and pushed her to question her identity and consider remaking it. Kerrigan and Seimetz co-wrote every episode and took turns directing (Seimetz did six, Kerrigan seven). Although the show’s analytical style could be off-putting, its central performance was mesmerizingly opaque, and its rigor was fascinating. Season one was a rare TV drama that revealed psychology through action, be it as visually spectacular as a prolonged sex scene or as mundane as Christine nervously setting down a drink after being warned by a client’s wife never to go near him again. The finale, which unfolded like a compact one-act play, detailed just one of Christine’s appointments with a john obsessed with a cuckold fantasy; it was filled with images and lines that served as a commentary on the acts of storytelling, filmmaking, and performance, including discussions of word choice and intonation during sex talk and a shot of the client opening motorized window blinds that was framed to evoke curtains rising on a stage production.

Season two is an experiment of a different kind. The winning team has split up. Kerrigan and Seimetz have each written their own half-hour, seven-episode series that are being presented as concurrent but separate events. Successive installments are paired on the same night over seven weeks. But whether this arrangement was meant to spark associations between the narratives or simply confirm that the filmmakers were creative equals who’ve been given their own sandboxes to play in, it doesn’t add much to the viewing experience, because the projects are so different in subject matter, visual style, tone, and worldview.

Kerrigan’s “Erica & Anna” is half–psychological drama, half–political thriller, set in Washington, D.C. (actually Toronto). The city streets and eerily unfurnished interiors are photographed with ruthless compositional exactness and populated by cruel and/or desperately unhappy people. The main characters are Anna (Louisa Krause), an escort who caters to political types, and Erica (Anna Friel), a high-powered operative who funds races through a super-pac. The two become entangled when Erica convinces Anna to help her in a blackmail scheme. Then Anna and Erica fall in love, and the story becomes a tale of sexual and emotional obsession. Kerrigan’s script alternates edgy discussions of the main characters’ relationships with graphic sex scenes (between Erica and Anna and Anna and her clients) and scenes where Anna tries to navigate a complicated congressional race in which obscene amounts of money and power are at stake.

Unfortunately, Kerrigan never convinces us that the carnal aspects of the series (including a full-on, visible blowjob — a pay-cable first?) are integral to the exploration of Anna and Erica’s psychologies. You can skip at least half of the sex scenes and not lose important plot information — a marked contrast to the original The Girlfriend Experience, which deepened narrative and character each time Christine had sex or masturbated. Neither these nor the intense scenes of Erica and Anna flirting, fighting, and breaking down in cathartic tears ever fully connect with the stuff about money, politics, and money-in-politics. Despite fully committed and often superb performances, neither Erica nor Anna come alive as recognizable human beings. The same is true of the men, most of whom are morally hideous Ayn Randian right-wingers gassing about the glories of job creation and the ingratitude of the undeserving poor. It’s clear that Kerrigan was going for something other than naturalism here, and that the series’s misanthropic vision of American life (which would be misogynistic if the director didn’t seem to hold the men in greater contempt) is integral to whatever he’s doing. But despite powerful individual scenes and sequences, the series’s larger vision never snaps into focus.

Seimetz’s story, “Bria,” is more involving. Carmen Ejogo stars as the title character, a New Mexico–based arms dealer’s wife who drops a dime on her husband and goes into witness protection with her ex’s bratty teenaged daughter, Kayla (Morgana Davies). Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of TV on the Radio, plays U.S. Marshal Ian Olsen, who is assigned to protect Bria and set her up in a new life that includes a job in a soft-drink factory. In what might be the only point of narrative contact with Kerrigan’s series, Bria is a former escort, and when it becomes clear that her new job is all wrong for her and that she will never have enough money to live as comfortably as she wants (or enough to escape, should she need to), she starts seeking clients again.

This is only a small part of the tale, though — a fact reflected in the way Seimetz shoots the sex scenes, keeping the actors clothed and fixating on Bria’s reactions and motivations. Like the original GFE, though with a different setting and in a different genre (the witness-protection thriller, wherein the protector falls for the witness), this one is about a beleaguered and overextended woman taking stock of her life and asking how she came to be who she is, what she wants, and how to get it. The story falls apart near the end, and the entire series feels truncated and scattered; the emphasis seems sometimes misplaced, particularly in the last two episodes, when the story, which had been kept on low simmer for the first four episodes, picks up heat and boils over. But Ejogo’s transparent performance, the character’s sympathetic predicament, and Seimetz’s structural choices (such as building an episode around Olsen’s perceptions, and shifting the time frame around to conceal and reveal information) are consistently engaging and occasionally brilliant. Overall, the two series add up to an unsuccessful but fascinating experiment. The next question Starz should ask is whether Seimetz and Kerrigan work better together (on this show, if not on their own projects) than apart, and if so, whether the correct solution is to ask them to join forces again or hand the next season to someone new.

*A version of this article appears in the November 13, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The Girlfriend Experience’s 2nd Season Is a Mixed Bag