UK TV review: The Girlfriend Experience
Craig Skinner | On 28, Aug 2016
When Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’ The Girlfriend Experience first premiered on Starz in America, it aired week by week, as is standard for all new shows on the channel, but Starz also did something they’d never done before: they put the entire season online. This is also how the show reached UK shores last month, with Amazon providing a home for the series and releasing all episodes at once. While Starz may have been playing to a new trend and experimenting with a way of bolstering their online service, it seems more than a little likely that they also chose The Girlfriend Experience very carefully; it’s a series that suits more sustained viewing, either in one long watch or divided up into a couple of more manageable chunks.
The Girlfriend Experience isn’t about easy, plot-driven draws that encourage you to watch just one more episode though, it is a slow burn character drama that, if shorter and released as a feature, could easily be a breakout indie hit of the year. Kerrigan and Seimetz have created an atmosphere with this show that is all-consuming, but it is one whose effectiveness diminishes somewhat if one steps away from it for too long. Where many series have a house style – despite the use of multiple directors, every episode of a show like House of Cards looks and sounds generally the same – The Girlfriend Experience has a house atmosphere. This sort of style is frequently about arch framing (see Mr. Robot) or consistent colour timing (see the aforementioned House of Cards), but these things are frequently just empty gestures towards a ‘neat look’ or a helpful reminder of what show we are watching.
With The Girlfriend Experience, Kerrigan and Seimetz have followed in the footsteps of filmmakers such as David Lynch (Twin Peaks) and Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) and they have used cold, steely and purposeful colour timing, distanced or obscured framing, static or glacial camerawork, drone or ambient-based scoring, and so many more highly nuanced techniques, to make the show feel alive in a very specific way. This all works in conjunction to pull you into the series and profoundly affects how you feel while watching the show. It’s akin to putting on a song and instantly feeling happier, angrier or more melancholic, but in a far more complex and intricate way that so crucially aids in the story that they are telling. It’s something highly lacking from a number of television shows, even highly praised ones, and the reason why many still refer to the medium as a writer’s format, or still secondary to its big brother, cinema.
The story that Kerrigan and Seimetz are telling is not heavy with plot. There are a few different sub-plots that play out – malfeasance within a law firm and a couple of diversions featuring clients – but for the most part, the narrative is simply about the main character, Christine Reade (Riley Keough), supplementing her salary as an intern at a law firm by becoming an escort, and, eventually, her complete acceptance of this as her primary career. The process through which we see her enter this profession is intriguingly and quite deliberately mirrored with her path into law and the way in which she is treated at her firm, Kirkland & Allen. The concept of selling yourself for money, competition within corporations and what you should and shouldn’t be ashamed of in any profession, are ideas that Kerrigan and Seimetz – who co-wrote the series together and take turns directing – frequently dip their toes into, but these heady themes never threaten to drown the show. Threads are left hanging for a smart, engaged audience to tie together and mull over.
Instead of complicated plotting and wild twists, we get the intense and fascinating investigation of Christine as a person and it’s a character study that comes with zero easy conclusions to be drawn. The showrunners openly reject simple explanations, with Episode 4 being particularly important for the way in which it uses Christine’s own uncertainty about her behaviour to explore what some of these easy answers are that the audience may be thinking about. At one point, she asks her sister – played by director Seimetz – whether she thinks that she might be a sociopath. This follows a scene in which she tells her sister that she isn’t interested in spending time with people unless they are working together to accomplish something and a sequence in which one of her clients jokingly compares her to Ted Bundy. The later begins with a slow zoom that strongly recalls the opening of Coppola’s The Conversation, the form exquisitely working in unison with the ideas of distance and disconnection being explored in the dialogue.
Christine does not simply seem to be a sociopath and the very next episode makes this explicitly clear, with Christine showing genuine concern for one of her clients, whom she thinks may have gone missing. This, in turn, leads to an episode in which a client begins to get too close, following a moment in which he fools around in a pool with Christine and makes her angry. This leads to a rare explosion from Christine, which is clearly born out of anger about losing control, something that the show returns to again and again in ever more interesting ways. The final shot of the show is also about this desire for control, but also so, so much more.
Keough as Christine is an absolute revelation. Keough has been solid in films such The Runaways, Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike, but she’s not had a great deal of room up until now to really break out and impress. While her role is disappointingly small and underwritten, she still manages to impress in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming American Honey and this will no doubt help wake many up who haven’t watched The Girlfriend Experience to her brilliance as an actress. Christine is something of a near impossible role for an actress to play, as Keough needs to be largely cold, unemotional and even blank at times, but simultaneously dropping the most subtle of clues to the audience as to what is going on beneath her steely exterior. Her performance recalls that of Sasha Grey, who played the protagonist in Soderbergh’s film The Girlfriend Experience – upon which this is very loosely based – and while Grey just about got away with a certain effective blankness, Keough is on another level and conveys so much in minuscule moments. A slight curl of her lips or minute tension in her cheeks is all that is needed to have you leaning in, getting an idea of what may be going on in her head, but never quite feeling certain.
Keough’s real tour de force, and possibly one of the best episodes of television this year, can be found in Episode 9 of The Girlfriend Experience, entitled Blindsided, in which Christine is backed into a corner as two parts of her life collide in an explosive fashion. Directed by Seimetz, this episode plays out largely in one location, a law firm, and breaks from a number of the series’ previous approaches to shooting and editing. The effect is unsettling and the feeling of being severely unbalanced and struggling to keep up overwhelms, reflecting what Christine is experiencing on screen. This is even more effective if watched after binging on a few episodes beforehand, the sharp turn and break from the stillness of previous episodes giving rise to a feeling of being blindfolded and led onto a rollercoaster unawares.
The Girlfriend Experience is a superbly written and exquisitely made series with one of the best performances of the year. A slow burn that sizzles and crackles into something quite remarkable.
The Girlfriend Experience: Season 1 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.