Watch season one of 'The Girlfriend Experience' Thursday nights at 9.30PM on SBS VICELAND, and catch up via SBS On Demand
There’s something uncanny about the polished world of The Girlfriend Experience, the evidence for which you can find even in the hairstyle of every slim, statuesque, stony-faced character. Everyone in The Girlfriend Experience is hard-edged perfection, from their crisp white shirts and ladderless pantyhose right up to their impeccable hairdos.
Chief among these glam-bots is Christine Reade (Riley Keough), who must the spend precious few minutes between her Law School classes, her prestigious corporate internship and her demanding incognito job as high-class escort at the salon, getting innumerable Brazilian blow-outs. I mean, the woman’s hair is always immaculate, even after hours spent romping around in her latter job, where logic would dictate one’s hair might get at least a little messy.
Not so for Christine, who is introduced to the powerful world of elite sex work by her university friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), and soon discovers she is fucking brilliant (and brilliant at fucking) as “Chelsea Rayne”, the protective pseudonym she adopts in her escort life.
Created by indie directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, after Steven Soderbergh’s light-on 2009 film of the same name, The Girlfriend Experience premiered in the US on Starz, the same channel that airs sex-soaked Spartacus and Outlander. It has now made its way to SBS VICELAND. As the subject would suggest, there’s plenty of heated sex in The Girlfriend Experience, but that’s honestly the least titillating part. This show is ice-cold thrills, where power is transposed through words and looks and chilly micro-moves, not through warm body friction as you’d expect.
In The Girlfriend Experience world, sex is merely a frosty transactional experience, a cool way of getting off or getting on up—and ever ready to be interrupted by an abrupt cut-to-black.
Christine is a promising law student who has just landed a killer internship at a top Chicago law firm, which she is juggling with her university classes and her heavy financial burdens when Avery opens the door to the promising world of elite escorting. Soon enough Christine has an iPhone full of clients, a swanky new apartment with the deposit paid down by her madam, the inscrutable Jaqueline (Alexandra Castillo) and the unique, thrilling feeling that comes with a roster of powerful men who adore her.
See, Christine is clever, chilly, calculated—almost robotic—and so well-suited to provide the full-service “Girlfriend Experience” to the moneyed clients who meet and become attached to her doe-ish good looks and her (put-on) demure demeanor. One of Christine’s Johns remarks that she’s like “the female Ted Bundy”, and she is a little—cold, unsympathetic but deliciously charismatic in a wry sort of way.
And it’s clear almost immediately that all the skills Christine harnesses in her job as a law intern—brokering deals and climbing internal hierarchies in her cutthroat offices—are the same ones that serve her as a successful escort.
She can engage in shop talk with the top businessmen who are looking for an attractive drinks date. She can wind even the most powerful CEO around her manicured finger in the bedroom, with just a twitch of her gartered thigh. And she can take care of herself when things turn nasty—as you’re always afraid they will.
The series, like many independent ventures, doesn’t rely on names to propel it forward—though Keough is in fact the granddaughter of the legendary Elvis Presley, there are few other recognizable figures to anchor the show and entice viewers, aside from Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks, who plays Christine’s cagey boss at the law firm. Nevertheless, the show is, if nothing else, a star vehicle for Keough, whose performance as the inscrutable Christine is astonishing. She shouldn’t be engaging, impactful or even likeable, just because she’s so far from having any warmth to grab onto as a viewer. But despite myself, I was drawn by her, hypnotised to keep clicking “Next Episode”, “Next Episode”.
There isn’t much more you can ask for in this Binge-Watching Era.
Truth be told, if the show sounds like it’s got a little more going on than is good for it, well, it does. Overstuffed schedule isn’t just the reality for Christine’s busy work-life, it’s also a metaphor for Smeitz and Kerrigan’s janky plot, which skids and zags every which way episode by episode. Don’t expect to get attached to any particular storylines, or sidekicks, or even to Christine’s Johns, who in many cases disappear from the story as suddenly as they arrive. You’ve heard of sex with no strings attached—this is the TV equivalent.
Given the subject matter, it’s tempting to compare the series to one like Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, the bawdy, camp vehicle for Billie Piper that reeked of mid-noughties sex confusion. However, to me the series feels more like the darker machinations in another Chicago power drama, The Good Wife, where sex and words and body language is also a trade-in for power, and where luxury and perfection is a given. (Paul Sparks is also, unwittingly or not, doing an uncanny impression of Josh Charles’s devilish Will Gardner.)
One thing’s for certain: it is, quite literally, one of the coolest shows about sexual relationships you’ll ever watch.
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