“The Girlfriend Experience” is an ironic title for a show about a high-end call girl, but it works because, for $1,000 an hour, Christine (Riley Keough, “Mad Max”) can be anyone you want her to be.
The Starz series, executive produced by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), centers around Christine, a law student and intern at a prestigious firm who turns to sex work to help pay her way through school. Yet, while her under-the-table business might be a means to a societally acceptable end, Christine is ultimately driven by her curiosity. There are the private boats and bottomless bottles of champagne that her balding, middle-aged clients don’t hesitate to show off. And then there’s the haunting thrill that Christine gets when she turns into her date-night alias, Chelsea, the kind of emotion that most television shows don’t care to showcase in their female leads.
Sex might sell, but “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t pushing a profound statement on the injustices of prostitution down the audience’s throat. Instead, the series finds success in exploring the drive for human relationship and developing characters that don’t have to use words to express their thoughts and capitalize on silences to create emotion.
Keough irrefutably captures the screen from the series’s beginning. She’s insanely beautiful in an obvious way that doesn’t require a second look, but her appearance is the only straightforward attribute she allows her character to embrace. Appearances are all an act, anyhow — emotionless and cold Christine can instantaneously transform into a bright-eyed, seductive Chelsea. She’s smart, witty and confident, but even in her private moments, Christine doesn’t reveal much about herself. Her emotional aloofness and unapologetic ambition are atypical in a female lead — attributes that make a show about sex possess virtually no sexual tension at all. Yet, in the moments when her controlled exterior does crack, her reactions are all the more telling and infinitely more impactful. Keough allows her actions to say more about her character than the minimalistic dialogue, taking more care to show distress in the trembling of her hand than in an all-too-expected call for help.
A coldness is woven throughout the entirety of the show as the artistry in the production captures an inescapable darkness. Little light penetrates the screen, mimicking the illicit double-life that Christine tries to secretly hold together. With virtually no musical score, every stiletto-heeled footstep echoes and each breath is amplified. The silence is off-putting, but nothing about “The Girlfriend Experience” is intended to be comfortable. The show embraces a cynicism that allows little room for an uplifting moment, a constant pessimism that brands the show with an original tone.
The first season of “The Girlfriend Experience” establishes a variety of paths the narrative can take, but it has yet to hone in on a streamlined direction for character and plot development. The foundation for a great series is there, budding with complex individuals that can be easily developed to showcase a multitude of dimensions, but it lacks a controlled focus necessary to stand out on the landscape of television. The topic is complex and heavy, and as the nature of money, sex and power are redefined within each of Christine’s “relationships,” there is still room for new elements to come into play.