In 2009, Steven Soderbergh released an interesting little film called THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. It followed a high-class escort named Christine (porn star Sasha Grey) who worked under the name Chelsea, providing the illusion of a relationship for men who could pay (a lot) for it. Now Starz, with Soderbergh producing, is bringing that world to the small screen in a weekly half-hour (non-comedy) show, premiering this week.
This time around, Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays Christine / Chelsea. Instead of glimpsing a few select days, this version of THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE delves into why Christine would get involved in prostitution in the first place, as well as how she balances a “normal” life with her nighttime work. It’s a fascinating character study of a ripe, but little-seen, subject, begging for a series such as this.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE rises and falls on Keough. Only spending a small amount of the running time with her clothes off, she has to have acting talent to remain captivating, something less of a concern in a film. Keough is Elvis’ granddaughter, and has a sex appeal like the King, but in a more reserved way, which left me unsure if she was any good or not through at least the first episode. Yet, the more I watched, the more I was captivated by her performance, which mixes an almost cold woman in her personal relationships with someone who craves the attention and power one gets from selling one’s body. She’s very interesting.
Christine becomes aware of this career option through her friendship with Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil, House of Cards), who already has a steady man financing her life. At first, Avery seems to want to show off and maybe shock Christine a little. But once Avery introduces Christine to her version of a pimp, Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo, The 6th Day), Avery becomes uncomfortable with how successful Christine becomes, almost overnight, knocking their pairing out of alignment.
This friendship is a lynchpin in the early episodes, but seems like it probably won’t be in the near future, despite Sheil being listed as a main player. The dynamic between Avery and Christine is a strange one, as much about competition as it is affection, and with no other friends shown, the more we see of Avery, the more she seems to reflect something about Christine. I’ll let others debate if this says something about female bonds in modern society, simply stating it makes for good TV.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE doesn’t stay confined to the sex trade. We follow Christine to her internship at a prestigious law firm, where she works for partner David Tellis (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire). Christine’s relationship with David is a strange one, too, Christine not seeming to fit into the normal framework of human interaction, and I can’t help but wonder how soon it will be before David gets pulled into her after-hours work. It seems an inevitability to me.
What is compelling about that, though, is the inclusion of Erin Roberts (Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24) as a core cast member. Erin works with David, and is nice enough to Christine. But I can’t see Erin approving of any personal relationship between David and his underling, and that seems like fertile ground for THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE to move to once it gets through the Avery arc.
And this is just skimming the tip of what this show could be. Delving into the mind of a smart, driven woman who makes some choices outside of the social norm (and hangs with creepy older gentlemen) is fascinating stuff, and this show is a lot more than just a titillating tease. Sure, I assume we’ll get some juicy kink eventually, but that’s not what the main draw is, and I would recommend it to anyone, male or female, who likes original quality entertainment. It’s a very well made show, with atmosphere and pacing that set it apart.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE premieres this Sunday on Starz, which , for those who have abandoned cable (like myself), is now available as a subscription through Amazon.