The mastery of fake enthusiasm is a necessary job skill in sex work, but hardly limited to that field. A few days before taking up a part-time gig as a $1,000-an-hour escort, law student Christine (Riley Keough) makes the rounds at an internship fair with a practiced smile. She’s “particularly intrigued” by litigation over graphene nanosheets, she tells one potential employer. To another, her true interest lies in styrene-butadiene rubber. When classmate Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) asks about the pronunciation of some 17-syllable chemical compound, Christine redirects her to the real point of these interviews: “They just want to hear their own words repeated back to them.”
Though she gives her johns a false name, Christine is much more herself around them. “I don’t have any friends,” she shrugs to one. Another client calls her “a female Ted Bundy” when she admits that she doesn’t emotionally react to things the way others tend to do. “I don’t like sharing my time with anyone unless something’s being accomplished,” Christine informs her concerned sister (Amy Seimetz).
That detachment makes Christine both the fascinating and frustrating center of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, a study of economic and sexual alienation based on Steven Soderbergh’s (mostly insubstantial) 2009 Sasha Grey vehicle of the same name. Creators Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who wrote and directed all 13 episodes of the half-hour drama, borrow from Soderbergh his somber, antiseptic, money-minded approach to intimacy, but largely improve upon the film with suspenseful plotting and searching explorations of elite sex work as work, with all the hustle, drudgery, and, yes, sense of pride that that entails.
Christine’s day job, an internship at a white-shoe law firm in Chicago, is hardly a workers’ paradise. On her first day, her boss David (Paul Sparks) shuts down her attempts to show initiative by ordering her to simply copy-paste documents. Thus Christine’s primed to say yes when Avery invites her to have drinks in exchange for cash with a well-heeled lawyer just like David: She can finally be admired by the men who run the world — and be paid for it to boot. Later, when she’s assembled a healthy roster of clients, she gazes coolly out of a backseat car window at a group of men in suits lined up on the street in a reversal of the usual hooker-john scene. The power dynamic favors the young woman, for now.
The Girlfriend Experience’s first season follows Christine as she develops her business as an escort while unwittingly doing everything possible to self-sabotage her nascent legal career. There’s no anguish about the immorality of selling her body, and very little about the marriages and families she’s doing her part to break up. Christine briefly wonders whether she’s a sociopath, but it’s more likely that she’s like a lot of us in that she can’t resist instant gratification — in her case, $300 bottles of wine and weekends on servant-manned yachts.
Trading sex for money is sometimes a lot more dangerous than is depicted here, though a couple of clients — one on purpose, one by accident — threaten to reveal her identity. Soderbergh’s film was on point about one thing missed here: That Grey’s Chelsea never bothers to create a sense of self because she knows that none of her clients are interested in the real her. The TV show’s muffled, nearly music-free soundscape is matched by quiet Christine, who’s too sullen to look like much fun. (According to Seimetz and Kerrigan, Chicago’s wheelers and dealers are turned on by women who only ever want to talk stocks and regulations and wear Banana Republic blouses buttoned all the way to the neck.)
Christine’s disastrous mistake of telling an unstable client where she spends her 9-to-5 hours midway in the season ends in a nightmare scenario. A subplot involving a big case at the firm eventually gains interest when it bleeds into Christine’s troubles, and a return home in the penultimate installment somewhat fleshes out the opaquely written character. Keough does much with an expectant stare, while her looks of dispassionate appraisal betray Christine’s keen intelligence and ruthless ambition. The rest of the cast, including Mary Lynn Rajskub as a senior coworker at the firm, is uniformly excellent. But the series’s decision to keep viewers in the dark about Christine’s thoughts and feelings render the character an object of the audience’s head-scratching curiosity rather than our sympathy.
The show also takes from Soderbergh the director’s chilly form of titillation. But the series’s best innovation is something utterly lacking in the film: female sexual pleasure. Avery loves her nighttime gig by looking at herself through a man’s eyes. “I get off on it,” she explains. “I like the rush, all the attention, knowing he wants me.” Christine does too, but she also likes to enjoy herself when she’s with her clients — if/when they’re willing to allow her to do so — and encourages the men she’s with to find satisfaction in satisfying her. (Isn’t that the ultimate girlfriend experience?)
Christine is repeatedly shown masturbating (both by herself and exhibitionistically to others), and the show is real enough about vaginas to balance all that sex (ow) with periods and a trip to the gynecologist. But as Christine’s work becomes less about a complicated sort of self-empowerment and more about punching the clock, her alienation from the body becomes one of the show’s more affecting storylines. For the girl in the girlfriend experience, sex can be so painfully lonely.