Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Girlfriend Experience is one of the best and boldest shows of the year

Very few television shows use sex in any meaningful way.  Just look at the countless premium cable dramas that employ sex scenes as a means of pure titillation.  Or look at Game of Thrones, which often uses sex as sugar to help the medicine of exposition go down.  These scenes aren't really telling the audience much about the characters or themes of their respective shows.  In fact, you could lift them right out of an episode not much would change aside from the tightness of your trousers.

Some shows do try though.  In the past, we had HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, which aimed to examine sex realistically, but was too dramatically inert to make a mark.  More recently, Girls has portrayed how goofy and awkward sex between young people can be, but it's hardly about sex.  That's what makes Starz's daring, evocative new series The Girlfriend Experience so vital: it presents an unflinching and thoughtful look at sex while also delivering a satisfying narrative.

Loosely based on the 2009 film of the same name that was directed by Steven Soderbergh (who serves as an executive producer here), The Girlfriend Experience is created by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who write every episode and alternate directorial duties.  Like its progenitor, the series introduces us to the world of high-end escorts, who provide their clients with a level of companionship absent from the lower rungs of sex work. We follow Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a second year law student who just landed a prestigious internship at a top law firm, as she learns about the GFE lifestyle when her friend Avery (indie film staple Kate Lyn Sheil) reveals that she works as an escort on the side.  Christine gives it a try, adopting the name Chelsea as a pseudonym, and quickly discovers how much she enjoys the sex and level of luxury that this life entails.  Her progression deeper into this world is chronicled over the course of the 13-episode first season.

As much as it is a dissection of this culture audiences may know very little about, The Girlfriend Experience is primarily an intense character study of Christine Reade.  More and more, we're getting examples of rich and vibrant female leads, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a woman (or any character, really) written as uniquely as she is.  Christine is alienating, cold, has no friends, sees interactions as purely transactional, and doesn't seem bothered when her actions cause damage to others; and Kerrigan & Seimetz let her exist for pure observation, not judgment.  They go out of their way throughout the season to cross out the usual conclusions one would draw when trying to explain Christine's decisions.  She's not a sociopath, she wasn't abused as a child, she's financially stable, she comes from a loving family.  There is not one answer that can magically solve her.

Is Christine selfish?  Or does she just operate under a different set of rules and values from most people?  Does that make her selfish?  You're likely to turn those questions over and over in your head throughout the season, coming up with a different result each time.  Usually when you've watched 13 episodes of a show and you still don't know what's driving a character, that's simply bad writing.  Here, it's what makes the show so alluring.

All of this works because of Riley Keough.  A less talented performer might make Christine seem like a flat character, but Keough finds some wonderful texture in her opacity.  Kerrigan and Seimetz smartly make use of alot of close-ups where the camera is planted squarely on her face for an extended period of time, just searching the subtleties of Keough's expressions and glances.  And when it's time for Christine to come alive to give clients the GFE experience they want, Keough transforms and delivers there too.  She's got an astonishing range -- best exhibited in the season's wild ninth episode -- that makes her one of the best actors on television right now.

Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz both come from more of an independent film background, which comes through in The Girlfriend Experience.  This is a quiet and chilly show -- perhaps too chilly for some -- full of psychological nuances and micro-expressions that speak volumes.  But Kerrigan and Seimetz reveal themselves to be surprisingly adroit plotters as well.  The season moves along at a glacial pace, but the pair load the episodes with setups that pay off beautifully in the final stretch.  By the end, it's a marvel how elegantly the show's disparate elements lock together.

The Girlfriend Experience is not exactly an inviting series.  It challenges the limits of its viewers progressiveness and what we expect from female characters.  It asks us to accept many of Christine's choices and really think hard about why we don't accept some of her other decisions.  This is not a male fantasy.  This is not a female empowerment story either.  It's just a complex, fascinating, magnificently crafted piece of television.

No comments:

Post a Comment