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How The Outstanding New Starz Series ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Gives Us A Female TV Antihero For The Ages

How The Outstanding New Starz Series 'The Girlfriend Experience' Gives Us A Female TV Antihero For The Ages

Alison Bechdel is blameless in all this, but a couple of years ago, when the reductive-but-snappy litmus test for cultural sexism that bears her name was upwafting on the zeitgeist, it inspired a thought experiment of my own. Now, most of the mental quizzes I set myself when bored have mayfly lives, because after a while (and this is the problem with the Bechdel test and its subsequent dogmatization too), applying such agenda-based filters as a method of cultural critique becomes as robotic as Mr. Skin fast-forwarding through films to timestamp each instance of boob. But this one continues to rattle around, maybe because to my mind, no wholly satisfying answer ever presented itself. My “Danielle Plainview paradigm” is simply this: Who is the most qualitatively similar female version of the Daniel Day-Lewis character from Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “There Will Be Blood”?

The new 13-episode Starz show “The Girlfriend Experience” that quietly reclaims the half-hour format for drama, co-written by indie filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan (who directed seven of the episodes) and Amy Seimetz (who directed six, and also co-stars), based on executive producer Steven Soderberghs 2009 experimental doodle of the same name, is palpably nothing like “There Will Be Blood.” And Christine Reade, the high-class escort played by Riley Keough, is palpably nothing at all like Daniel Plainview. Even aside from the fact that the watchful, elusive Christine hardly ever raises her voice and has a much less noticeable mustache, as a sex worker, she should be excluded from consideration seeing as one of the “rules” of the Plainview paradigm is that since Plainview exhibits no discernible interest in sex, neither should his female equivalent.

But perhaps proving just how seldom has any term, while applicable, so singularly failed to capture the essence of a fictional character as “sex worker” does for Christine Reade, she might just be the closest I’ve yet seen: a repellent yet alluring young woman of colossal ego (as opposed to vanity) and monumental will whose sex work is an efficient and logical choice of side profession. The defiantly un-lazy Christine aims to be the best at it, through means ethical and otherwise, in the same way she instinctively equips herself with materials for future coercion as a law-student intern. Like Plainview, Christine is marked out by the terrifying purity of her unapologetic ambition. Like Plainview, she is not just an antihero, she’s an anti-victim: Her demons, her unexamined pathology, her spectrum sociopathy are all entirely her own. Like Plainview, she will drink your milkshake. To say she has agency is an understatement — she is nothing but agency.

In this way, “The Girlfriend Experience” sets itself head and shoulders above the Soderbergh film that inspired it. There, Sasha Grey‘s escort-on-the-make is reviled by the gross “porn critic” (played with event-horizon sleaze by film critic Glenn Kenny), for wanting to market herself as high-end when, he alleges, she’s not smart or cultured enough; TV Christine has an effortless, unaffected, surprisingly conservative aura of class. The Christines may share an unusually liberated attitude toward sex and a flexibility about breaking the law in that regard, but Movie Christine also wants companionship, intimacy and a daffy self-help-paperback idea of love. TV Christine would look at Movie Christine with pity, if she didn’t look right through her.
Even in a television age unusually blessed with complex female characters, she is something new. She’s not, for example, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) from “The Good Wife,” or Olivia (Kerry Washington) from “Scandal,” unimpeachably clever and aspirationally gorgeous heroines who may frequently make morally questionable decisions, but whom we still root for. Perhaps the less inherently likable Elizabeth (Keri Russell) in “The Americans,” or Liv Tyler‘s Meg in “The Leftovers” come closer, but neither show makes the woman’s psychology its sole focus. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is troubled to the point of tortured in “Homeland,” and has the haunted, hunted expression to prove it; Christine’s unruffled, unreadable exterior might be her key characteristic. Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) in “Girls” has an edge of ironic self-awareness that Christine, despite the intensity of her self-interest, never hints at. And even the truest female antihero we’ve had on TV to date, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) in Lifetime‘s brilliant and underseen “UnREAL,” is played for spiteful, arch black comedy. By contrast, Kerrigan and Seimetz make Christine’s unknowable interiority the infinitely dense dark matter at the heart of their sleek, sharklike show, and they do their courtesan the courtesy of taking her very seriously indeed.

It’s a trait that makes the show far more complex and considered than “half-hour Starz series about call girls!” might suggest. Essentially, “The Girlfriend Experience” feels like a film noir told from the perspective of femme fatale. This approach shouldn’t work — the femme fatale is traditionally a side character because she’s there to have an effect on the men who the story is about and because too much screen time would probably rob her of allure. A deglammed Veronica Lake at home in an old T-shirt, throwing a hissy fit when she can’t get her peekaboo wave to hang right, might spoil the illusion. But somehow, without compromising on her mystery, the show is riveted to Christine, clothed or naked, alone or with others, at work or at home and even, during one transcendently casual moment, discovering while peeing that she’s got her period and putting in a tampon.

The lingering atmosphere of seamy cynicism is abetted by DP Steven Meizler‘s beautifully composed yet woozily voyeuristic photography, always shooting through windows or mirrors, down aubergine hotel corridors or from adjacent spaces, spying, prying, yet remaining, like Christine, coolly detached from what he is recording. In the manner of Danny Boyle‘s “Trance” or Alex Garland‘s “Ex-Machina” this is a show of reflective surfaces and hard, modernist lines, a kind of plate glass neo-noir aesthetic. And Shane Carruth and David Paterson‘s score (apparently Carruth, who also appears in one episode, did the music for his “Upstream Color” co-star Seimetz’s episodes, while Paterson did Kerrigan’s, but the joins do not show)  — all icy synths and peculiar, portentous digital drones — adds to the general feeling of menace and unease.

It also smooths over the deliberately vague time shifts: Sometimes whole swathes of time are swallowed in greedy gulps between scenes and we only realize later that weeks have passed, not hours. Perhaps this is what it’s like to experience life as the kind of asocial, manipulative animal that Christine is: She claims at one point that she doesn’t pursue any relationship unless it “accomplishes” some end. Perhaps all the lost time simply contains low-priority events and encounters that her unsentimental brain has jettisoned as useless. 

But all the craft in the world couldn’t make this unswerving focus work without Keough. In a faultlessly understated but forcefully present performance, she makes Christine the ultimate attracti-pulsive heroine, portraying her as a locked enigma without ever seeming blank or vacuous. As time goes on, her face, which seems to change in beauty from one scene to the next without ever quite settling, becomes a source of fascination, and even though we, as opposed to her cam customers, get to look at it endlessly, it mostly remains unfathomable, no matter how much you search it for clues. 

The moments when the mask slips are even more impressively carried off by the actress, whose previous work in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Magic Mike” we liked, but hardly suggested this kind of command. There are only a handful of times in “The Girlfriend Experience” that we see Christine experience genuine emotion (as opposed to the synthetic, limpid-eyed sympathy she manufactures for her johns) — and they’re wordless and compact. At one point, she is uncharacteristically upset in a bathroom stall and with just the tiniest flicker in expression you see the moment the she stops feeling and starts, again, to think. At another, during a pre-coital conversation, her client says something that registers as off and you can almost see the adrenaline flood that occurs behind Keough’s eyes, as the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in.

But otherwise, “what is going on behind the closed door of that pretty face?” is the question that tickers in your mind throughout the whole show. It makes it addictive in a different way than a more plot-based serial might be, and far more so than the “ooh, sexcapades!” possibilities teased by its logline. In fact, the show’s treatment of sex, while hardly prudish, is remarkably cerebral. Although there is a lot of it, usually heterosexual but not always, and the fact we see much more of Keough’s naked body than any man’s leaves it open to accusations of “male gaze”-iness, the sex scenes are character development, not titillation. The “gaze” in these noticeably un-messy scenes, if anything, feels Teflon-coated and oddly detached, perhaps because it really belongs to Christine (or, in her call-girl persona “Chelsea”).

She has a tendency to close her eyes, throw her head back and stop her partner speaking when she is about to orgasm. It’s a pose we see her in several times, and each time that question recurs: What is she thinking? What is happening in her head? We can’t know for sure, but a later scene shows Christine watching, with riveted attention, home-security CCTV footage of herself masturbating. It makes me imagine that to bring herself to orgasm, Christine imagines herself watching herself pleasuring herself — her narcissism is that all-encompassing. It’s what makes her the complex, twisted and fascinating creature that she is. 

And it also proves the show’s feminist credentials, beyond its nonjudgmental attitude toward prostitution. Beyond even all the other intriguing supporting female characters, from Kate Lyn Sheil’s slinky frenemy to Mary Lynn Rajskub‘s flinty power lawyer to Seimetz as Christine’s down-to-earth sister, even though the lunching scenes in which women trade glances that glint like swords over scallops and Sancerre are among the show’s best. Beyond the fact that you could see Christine, in both her call-girl persona and as a scheming intern at a big law firm, as somehow sticking it to The Patriarchy. Really, “The Girlfriend Experience” is feminist simply because Christine is interesting in a way that male protagonists have always been allowed to be interesting: for their psychologies, in and of themselves, for the riddles they are that we want to solve, without reference to any other character, and without the burden of having to be likable.

Traditionally, you’re supposed to want either to have sex with a female character or to aspire to be like her. But even if I didn’t hover boringly at the lower end of the Kinsey scale, I just don’t believe I’d be that hot for Christine — does anyone really get off on the idea of being duped into a borderline sociopath’s frictionless simulacrum of intimacy? And despite her enviable, prim yet sexy wardrobe and the lifestyle that all that money buys, I really don’t want to be her either — for one thing I’d be constantly barking my shins on all those sharp, shiny surfaces. Christine is a character I don’t want to be or be with, and I don’t have to like. I just want to watch her, and to try to figure her out.

This cerebral voyeurism makes “The Girlfriend Experience” one of the most grown-up shows on TV. It takes itself seriously and it earns the seriousness of its tone by dispensing deeply pessimistic noir-wisdom about the transactional nature of modern relationships, our digitized, atomized lives, our fractured identities. It presents an unsmiling world where control is only ever an illusion, sometimes a delusion. The show is bigger even than Christine (and she is immense), and its mood lingers, making you second-guess some of your own interactions, making you wonder what kind of people we are and what future we’re hurtling towards, when this coldhearted, dispassionate drama can feel so compelling.

So abandon what you think a show about a call girl will be like. It’s designed less to arouse than to spook, and the “double life” narrative from where it derives a lot of its drama zigzags so often it’s hard to know if Chelsea or Christine is the more real, more fundamental persona (this isn’t some Jekyll/Hyde or Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce duality). And it is not an arc of innocence lost or goodness corrupted either. Instead it tracks a different trajectory as, for better or worse, this young woman becomes more herself — more powerful, more certain, more isolated, more dangerous, more exquisitely unknowable. The story of a call girl accorded as much personhood, charisma and agency as any toweringly insane turn-of-the-century oil tycoon, if “The Girlfriend Experience” is a peep show at all, we’re peeping into the inky abyss of Christine’s soul, and the abyss peeps right back. 

“The Girlfriend Experience” debuts this Sunday on Starz.

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