Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” is … an Experience
Disturbing but sexy. Intriguing but horrifying. Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience is a lot of things.
Better and more insightful critics might tell you that The Girlfriend Experience is a cutting edge drama about a law school student interning at a top law firm who winds up becoming a high-end call girl, loosely based on the 2009 film starring Sasha Grey from 2009. I’d call it peculiar and important, namely in its focus and treatment of a feminine figure who takes a sense of ownership over her life, yes, in a sexual way. I probably shouldn’t even allow myself to mansplain some of the complexities at play with a strong female lead, but it strikes me as important that Christine Reade (Riley Keough) is a woman who despite being initially hesitant about working as a prostitute, comes to genuinely enjoy the work and make a lot of money doing it as well (I think?).
If we’re being honest, it’s kind of a fucked up show. The last few episodes of season 1 take things to an incredibly dark place and not in a disturbing perverted kink kind of way; it’s more of a revelation seen through the eyes of a complete sociopath that the world is full of bad people.
A large portion of The Girlfriend Experience is a law firm drama with a premise not entirely dissimilar (to me at least) to some bits from The Good Wife, season 1: Christine is an intern who sort of develops some mutual attraction to one of the partners in the firm, and before long those interpersonal office dynamics get really problematic.
Alongside this plotline is Christine’s initially tentative foray into the world of high-end prostitution. A close friend from school flaunts the bounty of her rich clients to Christine and eventually “shares some of the love”, eventually introducing her to – for lack of a better term – a luxurious female pimp named Jacqueline (who takes THIRTY PERCENT).
We as a society are conditioned to just assume that in a show about prostitution, even at the fabulously wealthy level we’re looking at here where the apartments, houses, and hotel suites are just insane, that sexual violence will occur at one time or another. I think it works in the shows favor that it avoids that easy road, narratively speaking, and instead decides to portray Christine’s transformation into something new in an assertive way rather than have her descend into some pit of iniquity. Though she is harassed and has to deal with harsh opinions and quite a few weird kinks, she seems to genuinely enjoy the thrill and the attention.
More often than once, I noticed a client take things just an inch too far. In some cases, Christine would just go with it. But in many others, she would assertively just vocalize where the line was drawn. She had no qualms with putting these men in their place. In a situation in which she is getting paid for a sexual service, she was ultimately just about always in control. Even when she wasn’t, she recognized the work for what it was. Who loves their job all the time anyway? But oddly enough even the lightly traumatic experiences didn’t haunt her, and when confronted with fear or confusion by those closest to her, she comes to defend her position and take ownership over her life.
All in all, it’s a sexy, racy show that despite having nudity in every episode and including a number of odd kinks, pretty much never breaks past the boundary of softcore porn. Blending a serious drama with any measure of pornography is no easy feat, for sure, but The Girlfriend Experience does it rather well.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch upon the character of Christine a bit more. She’s an incredibly sexual person who gets off on the work she does sometimes, but not always. The character herself is a pretty great actress, convincing even chubby older men that she loves there company. In one case, she even has the viewer convinced that she might love the guy. Never does she smile unless it’s to sell herself to a client. At one point she actually asks her sister if she thinks she might be a sociopath. I think I literally screamed, “Yes!” when that happened.
It’s not that Christine hates people per se, but she is so emotionally disconnected from almost everyone and strikes such an incredibly gloomy personality that it casts a dour mood upon the show. Odd music choice that sounds akin to horror movie music also characterize the show at times, bringing the mood lower, lower, lower. But the weird thing is that her personality just seems like her personality. It’s not like she’s acting out because of some deep-rooted, decades-old personal trauma. That’s just the way she is, and it’s really conducive to her personality.
I found myself drawing a somewhat inevitable comparison to Breaking Bad at times. At the outset of the plot, Christine is a very focused, beautiful but sometimes waifish figure who isn’t physically all that different from someone like Anna Steele. She’s a good girl. She’s going to be a lawyer. She got a great internship and her eventual career seems secure. But she’s longing for something more. It’s a feeling of temptation and maybe even boredom that sets her down a path of transformation into something and someone else entirely. Whereas Walter White went from high school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin villain Heisenberg (and then back again by the end?), there doesn’t seem to be anything of the villain or even victim in Christine. It’s a liberation, an evolution that defies all expectation.
The penultimate episode of season one is a walk into Christine’s past; where – and who – she came from. And the final episode is just an absolute spectacle reasserting her life choice.
The Girlfriend Experience is not an altogether enjoyable show to watch, but it’s going to surprise you and make you think quite a bit about how much we should or should not judge people for their life choices.
The Girlfriend Experience is available on Starz. You can get a free 7-day trial via Amazon. If you believe in yourself, you can finish season 1 and cancel the trial before you ever have to pay anything, just like I did. You can do it. I believe in you.