Starz original series The Girlfriend Experience is unlike any girlfriend experience I’ve ever had. And unless you’ve dated a string of sexy sociopathic students turned prostitutes, it’s unlikely to be something you’re familiar with either. The series about a young law student embroiled in a double life as a high class escort is as arousing as it is exasperating. Sex on television is always swinging a double edged dick. For every dramatic dry hump meant to highlight power dynamics or add heft to the story, there’s undoubtedly someone out there with an uncomfortable erection shifting awkwardly in their seat. “Sexy” television always brings with it that added level of squirm. Exciting? Sure. Unnecessary? Almost always. The exception to prove the rule is the series that doesn’t just throw in a pair of boobs or linger on a bum because it can, but because it wants to explore the bum itself. This is, of course, a very roundabout way of saying that when a series uses sex and sex-on-screen critically and for a reason, you damn well sit up, tuck it away and notice.
The Girlfriend Experience is exactly that show.
Constantly shifting its focus, The Girlfriend Experience examines both men and women’s relationship with sex to really highlight how this thing, seemingly so simple and private, in fact permeates every single facet of life. It bleeds into your work and your relationship with friends and family. It’s not something that just happens behind closed doors and in the shadows, because each and every one of us is casting a sultry silhouette of our own – And we all close our own doors behind us when we go home. To ignore it all is to walk through life with that nagging feeling at the back of your mind that there has to be something more.
In this case, the woman who wants more and is determined to take it is Christine Reade, played to absolute perfection by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough. It is so easy to dismiss Keough’s performance as one-note and many might be inclined to do so for how little she reacts to situations that would leave anyone else reeling. Fortunately, Keough’s calculated and aggressively demure facial expressions are a constant, and confident, mask that only slips when Christine is at her absolute breaking point. Christine’s relationship with sex is, it is clear from the outset, a relationship with power. Her first sexual encounter in the series sees her seduce a random guy with just the six syllables “I want you to fuck me” whispered in his ear at the bar. Cut to his apartment and there is no doubt about it, Christine is in complete and utter control. After teasing the man to breaking point, she shifts all the focus to herself with no regard for his presence. Her relationship with pleasure is completely insular from the one she has with sex. She didn’t seduce the boy to get off; she did that just fine on her own. It’s liberating and exciting to see Christine not care that her partner might not get off in the way he wants to, and just focus on what she wants. “I really like you,” the guy says as she moves for the door. But it’s clear throughout the series Christine doesn’t have time for anyone other than herself. After the status quo is set, the bulk of episodes are spent with Christine attempting to compartmentalise her clients and her double life with the seemingly clean-cut world of corporate litigation. But it’s just a matter of time before the walls she builds come crashing down around her.
The show is impossible to pin down to a single genre, not just because it manages to juggle so many of them so well, but because its rapturous energy really stems from never settling comfortably into a box. In the first few episodes the tension between Christine and her escort mentor drives the narrative to a point many other high-stakes dramas would hit and then feel obligated to keep going with. But instead, the show course corrects to become a legal thriller and then to straight up Basic Instinct; it manages to pivot at every single major plot point to become something completely new. It’s touch-and-go; at times it flips between good roller-coaster fiction and just shallow and inconsistent storytelling, but when Christine is at the centre, it’s impossible to look away.
More than the intricate machinations of the legal and erotic thrillers at play, Christine is the real hook here. After inhaling the 13 half-hours on offer, I still don’t fully understand Christine or her reasons for why she does the things she does. While the series refuses to shy away from her pursuit of control, it never really lets us in on it. All of the power she has to begin with is still there when the credits roll, but the life she creates for herself is no longer completely hers: It belongs to the sex she never cared about and the men she never wanted.
The series has no real lesson to teach or closure to offer, but if anything can be gleaned from this story of a woman chasing her bliss all the way to the bank – it’s be careful what you wish for.
The Girlfriend Experience is all at once tense, frustrating, utterly beguiling, and overtly and painfully sexual. Never what you expect but somehow exactly what you want, this is a show unlike anything on television right now and is definitely worth checking out.
The Girlfriend Experience is out on DVD this Wednesday, and is also available to stream in its entirety on Stan.