If sex work is truly the “world’s oldest profession,” then exploring the lives of the women who engage in sex work isn’t exactly a groundbreaking premise for a story. Case in point: “The Girlfriend Experience,” a new Starz anthology series that owes its very existence to a 2009 Steven Soderbergh-directed film of the same title.
But despite the well-worn subject matter, this latest version of “The Girlfriend Experience” is a compelling new half-hour drama that treads upon familiar ground in a fresh, visually captivating way. Now set in Chicago instead of New York, the series follows a brand new Christine (Riley Keough) as she navigates the complicated world of high-class escorts.
At a recent press event for the series in New York City, Soderbergh attributed much of the show’s brilliance to its distinct auteur-driven directorial style, something he believes and has all but disappeared from the movie industry and is now a natural fit for television.
“If you’re one of those people that’s come up with an idea nobody’s done before, the you can kind of have a generic take on the filmmaking and it will still work because nobody’s seen this story,” Soderbergh explained. “But when you’re dealing with something that has been done a lot, and well, by other people, the burden is on you to find a way in that is so specific that it feels new.”
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To find that “specificity of image,” Soderbergh sought out one male director and one female director — Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, neither of whom knew each other before embarking on this project — and paired them together to write and direct the series while he produced from the sidelines.
“I felt like the show was really going to live or die on the filmmaking approach,” he said. “So I do think if you can design a show from the beginning with a director or a small group of directors involved, and they are in the core creative group, that you just get a better result.”
Considering how sex and gender can still be so intertwined in modern society, having both a female and male perspective present during the writing process was invaluable — although as Kerrigan noted, both he and Seimetz were so similarly focused on writing individuals that gender wasn’t a defining factor. “I think overall we were both just really interested in who this character was and what decisions she makes,” he said.
Which isn’t to say that the two always approached Christine’s story in exactly the same fashion, particularly as directors. “Amy was really interested in this idea of spying on Christine and being in the room, we both were, but I was also really interested in trying to understand Christine’s psychology and get closer to her,” Kerrigan added. “So that’s one of the directorial differences you can see between Amy’s episodes and mine.”
However, no one involved in the production feels as if their show is really about sex as much as it is about control and power, and how that can affect relationships — or the “ultimate unknowability of other people,” as Soderbergh put it.
“Amy and I were really interesting in examining intimacy, in a professional context or in a transactional context — living in an advanced capitalist society where everything has a price.” Kerrigan said.
Christine, as it turns out, is a master of negotiating that price. “She becomes aware of the fact that she has an effect on men and starts thinking like a superhero who’s just discovering what powers she has,” Soderbergh said. “She’s sort of pushing the boundaries of, how far do these powers that i think i have extend?”
Naturally every superhero needs an origin story, and this premiere season functions exactly like that for Christine. While the original movie gave us just a brief glimpse into the already established world of its escort, played by adult film star Sasha Grey, the Starz series starts us at the very beginning of Christine’s new career; after being introduced to a few of her friend’s clients, she becomes attracted to the agency this new lifestyle affords her — and to her friend, it seems, although Keough stopped just short of identifying Christine as bisexual. “She’s kind of evolved in that sense, I would say, in terms of male, female,” she said. “She likes things and she doesn’t like things.”
Labelling Christine as one sexual orientation or another does feel a bit unfair, since as a character she’s often completely inscrutable — even sometimes, it appears, to herself. That, according to Soderbergh, was by design. “I don’t want her to have an outlet. I want to know what she’s thinking by what she does, but I never want to know.” Even in the show’s sex scenes where she appears to pleasure herself, “it’s not even clear… did she finish? Or did she just give up?”
While the slow rise of the “female antihero” has recently become a topic of much discussion among television and film critics, it’s still rare that we see a female protagonist who’s permitted to be so “intelligent, driven, ambitious, manipulative, conflicted,” and “selfish” — all terms Kerrigan used to describe her. Although, of course, this doesn’t make Christine an “antihero” in the strictest sense, despite the term’s usefulness as a buzzword.
“She’s got flaws, and there’s not a lot of female characters that are like that. I wouldn’t really call her an antihero as much as I’d call her a human, really,” Keough said.
Nor is Christine a stereotype of a sex worker, with a damaged psyche and a traumatic past. “There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s not broken. There’s no skeleton in the closet that you find out,” Soderbergh says. Rather, her emotional aloofness is simply an inherent part of her character.
“In a way she feels superior to the human race sometimes, you know?” Keough noted. “I feel like she feels like she’s the smartest person in the whole world. I think that creates a distance.”
Don’t go expecting “The Girlfriend Experience” to moralize on its subject, either. “I don’t this by any means speaks for sex work or any generalities,” Keough said. “It’s called ‘The Girlfriend Experience,’ obviously, but it’s more of a character study for me, and it’s a look at this girl and her decisions, really.”
“We were all very clear that we didn’t want to editorialize or comment whether sex work was good or bad,” Kerrigan added. “It’s up to the audience to make that determination for themselves, and it’s very non-judgemental. It’s really just trying to be realistic, but at the same time intimate look at this one character, this one woman’s decision.”
Also of note: the series takes great care to juxtapose Christine’s sex work with her “day job” as an intern in an incredibly competitive law firm, where she often has less control over her circumstances.
“When you’re in a capitalist society, everything is transactional,” Kerrigan explained. “Every work is transactional. There’s always power [at play] when you’re an employee, no matter what job you have. So comparing the two, I thought was really kind of interesting — which is actually more oppressive than the other?”
But just like her clients, we’ll only get a brief window into Christine’s world; next season will see “a new landscape, new character, new place, to just keep switching it up so that you don’t fall into this trap of running out of ideas for your character,” said Soderbergh.
Even Kerrigan and Seimetz will eventually leave to make way for new directors, although they have another season to go before that happens. In the meantime, Soderbergh is content to sit back and let them have even more control over Season 2 next year.
“I don’t really like producing, actually, so I’m always hopeful that they won’t need me a lot,” he admitted with a grin. “When the phone rings, it’s because somebody has a problem you have to solve.”
“The Girlfriend Experience” Season 1 premieres Sunday on Starz.