In 2009, sandwiched between the wider release of his mammoth Che and the release of The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh made what could be considered a pisstake in his long career; The Girlfriend Experience. Scripted only barely by Ocean’s Thirteen writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, focused heavily on the recession and 2008 election, and starring then-adult film actress Sasha Grey, the film tells the story of a call girl almost completely sans nudity and explicit sex (if nothing else, this film is a terrific act of trolling against the people who rented it because there was a porn star on the cover) and focusing mainly on issues of trust and identity. The film didn’t really set the box office alight, and isn’t really looked at as one of Soderbergh’s best, so the news that it was going to be turned into a TV show was rather puzzling when it broke. But as details emerged about the show, it became much more than just an oddball curiosity, with the show only using from the movie its title, its central profession, and its main character’s name(s), it starring Riley Keough, and it being written and directed by the miracle duo of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz and scored by goddamn Shane Carruth. Even if this didn’t have Soderbergh’s blessing (he’s an executive producer), this would be must-watch TV, and, after some prolonged foot-dragging, watch it I did. How does it stack up to the movie? Should it even be compared to the movie? Why doesn’t Glenn Kenny show up to bring his brand of sleaze from the film to cable TV?
The show wastes no time in establishing that it’s a very different beast than the film. The movie The Girlfriend Experience takes place within the bubble that Sasha Grey’s Chelsea/Christine has created for herself; her occupation is to create a whole new persona for each men she meets, revealing nothing about herself in the process (even her diary is exclusively focused on the minutiae of her appointments, so she knows what to remember on return visits). Soderbergh then spends the film trying to enter that bubble. Seimetz and Kerrigan, however, begin their show with their Chelsea/Christine apparently on the job with her friend, but entirely focused on buying expensive hotel food and drink for them with their client’s credit card. The bubble has been penetrated, and we don’t even know who this person is yet.
Christine Reade (Keough), as it turns out, is a Chicago law student. As the series opens, she has gotten an internship at a prestigious law firm, working under patent lawyers in the middle of a very big legal fight. It’s all fun, games, and instructions for the proper way to do cease-and-desist letters until Christine’s friend Avery turns her onto a whole other kind of profession; a “TGE” escort, the kind who provides the genuine experience of a girlfriend along with the sex. Christine turns herself over to Avery’s madam Jacqueline, and soon enough, she’s off to the races, doing what she calls “burning a candle at three ends”, balancing schoolwork, regular work, and the secret work. But cracks begin showing by episode 3, when it’s revealed that Jacqueline is far more devious than the benevolent overseer image she projects, leading Christine to cut ties with her altogether. But that only puts a Band-Aid over a gradually deepening wound, as what follows (including inopportune appearances by clients’ friends, sudden deaths, unexpectedly skeevy clients, and and good old fashioned blackmail) will threaten more than one of Christine’s careers.
More than anything else, this show is impeccably-directed. Kerrigan and Seimetz take the approach of the central profession, projecting a pretty exterior above all else, and apply it to the show. So many scenes are shot so that the viewer gets a good look at all the luxury and gloss surrounding the characters, whether it’s the beautifully isolating glass walls of the law firm (one scene in episode 5 does particularly beautiful work playing with reflections caused by all those walls) and Christine’s apartment, the decoration of the many bars Christine visits, or the beautiful views seen through windows. It’s just as gorgeously clinical as you’d expect from Soderbergh, without having to give money to that Peter Andrews asshole (and don’t get me started on that Mary Ann Bernard…), with the added bonus of the paranoia these wide shots instill in the viewer (in the commentary for the film, Sasha Grey talks about meeting an escort who struck her as being particularly paranoid, a detail that didn’t work its way into the film but found a home here) even before Christine herself starts becoming paranoid. And when her paranoia becomes a reality in episode 9, the images completely break down, going into non-stop handheld as the episode proceeds to record Christine’s escalating misery in near-real time (this is the show’s “Get the Rope”, its late-midseason masterclass in tension). And the sound design is expectedly brilliant as well (I haven’t seen Seimetz’s directorial debut, Sun Don’t Shine, but Kerrigan established himself as a master of sound just on the basis of his aurally assaultive debut, Clean, Shaven), playing with ambient noise and sudden cut-outs to keep the viewer on their toes (episode 9 does particularly great work creating the most toxic soundscape possible), not to mention making selective, but potent use of Shane Carruth’s moody electronic score.
I’ve spent much of this review going over how this show has little to do with the film. Outside of a throwaway line about how “everyone is paid to be everywhere, it’s called an economy”, the film’s looks at economic realities through the lens of prostitution are gone. There’s also the aforementioned difference in how the show goes about looking at escorts compared to the film, aided by the difference between Riley Keough’s subtly expressive performance here and Sasha Grey’s purposely blank performance there (I think both styles work perfectly for both things, by the way). And yet… it actually has a lot in common with the film, for more reasons than just the obvious. Both the film and show take pains to reject the common view of escorts as women who are the victims of some past sexual trauma, the film implicitly and the show explicitly (Christine’s sister, played by Seimetz herself, even brings that up as a possibility at the beginning of episode 12). While the show gets rid of the film’s parallel structure with Christine and her boyfriend, Christine’s job at the law firm actually helps to smuggle that structure’s idea into the show, showing supposedly “respectable” people clandestinely hustling just like any person in an illicit line of work (although the contrast between the two is admittedly less perfect than movie Christine’s boyfriend working at a gym). And the themes of the film are almost completely repeated here, both looking at the danger of trusting others in a business defined by its disconnect from reality (although compared to how show Christine is treated, movie Christine was let off easy by just putting her faith in a client who made promises he couldn’t keep and getting tormented by a sleazeball Glenn Kenny), with the show going even further to say that maybe trusting anyone in general might not be a great idea, especially the person this show regards as its protagonist.
Going past all that, and just looking at this Girlfriend Experience from a storytelling perspective, it works really well too. The first eleven episodes are really riveting stuff on both the legal and erotic thriller ends, with events piling on top of each other and characters gaining dimensions until everything is blown up in the last two episodes, the twelfth taking a detour and the thirteenth going so far off path that many might not be able to keep up. It’s a bracing shift, and it’s safe to say there are many more questions left unanswered than answered by it, but it also puts into focus the character we’ve been watching this whole time, the kind of person who asks someone else if they’re a sociopath (they answer no, but if the evidence was convincing enough to make it a question in the first place…). Movie Christine was a cipher, but show Christine is an abyss, and the prolonged final scene (practically its own emotionally complex short film) is completely necessary to revealing that we’ve been staring straight at it for all this time.
The Soderbergh Players: Riley Keough is the only cast member to have worked with Soderbergh in the past. She played the pig owner who Alex Pettyfer’s the Kid starts seeing in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, and she also has a role in his upcoming first post-retirement project Logan Lucky. She’s also been in Mad Max: Fury Road, plus other films with presumably non-alliterative titles.
Looking at behind-the-scenes faces reveals more Soderbergh players. Lodge Kerrigan’s third and fourth films, Keane and the still-unreleased Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs) were produced by Soderbergh, who also did a drastic reedit of Keane which appears on the DVD. Soderbergh also interviewed Kerrigan for a commentary on the Criterion release of Clean, Shaven. Soderbergh has also been an avid fan of Shane Carruth, going on the interview circuit at the time of the release of Carruth’s Upstream Color (starring Seimetz) and producing Carruth’s sadly-discarded sci-fi epic A Topiary. Also, Carruth did the tiniest bit of consulting on Ocean’s Thirteen (he convinced the writers and Soderbergh to incorporate the phenomenon of resonant frequency into the heist). And the show’s DoP, Steven Meizler, has worked with Soderbergh since 2004, serving as a first assistant cameraman for all of Soderbergh’s films from Ocean’s Twelve on.
Up Next: Barring some very unexpected developments with the director’s cut of Kafka (I’m never giving up hope, sorry), whatever the fuck Mosaic is will be next.