The Sunday Magazine: The Girlfriend Experience

There is so much good television across so many platforms it is hard to keep up with it. It sometimes like television series are becoming as numerous as new perfume releases. What often happens is when a few are dropped all at the same time one or two get forgotten about. Which is where my readers come in. Outside of perfume correspondence the highest number of reactions I receive are on my writing in this column on my television habit. I think it is an outgrowth of what we used to call water-cooler television where we would talk about an episode with our co-workers in front of the water dispenser. Now via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram we don’t have to wait for the next day we can watch and then go look for reactions elsewhere. The latest recommendation I received was on my review of the new book “Fly Me” by author Daniel Riley. I praised it for melding multiple styles into a compelling story. Which led a reader to send me an e-mail asking if I had watched the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience. I have now.

Riley Keough as Christine Reade

I was interested because of Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh. Mr. Soderbergh’s introduction to the world was his 1989 movie “sex, lies, and videotape”. That movie explored the closely intertwined nature of psychosis and sexuality. It was unique in its unflinching ability to allow the camera not to blink when things got uncomfortable. Mr. Soderbergh has gone to have a varied career with occasional forays back into this topic. One of those was an experimental film 2009 called The Girlfriend Experience. Using the hand-held faux-documentary style of filmmaking he follows a high-priced escort who offers her clients “the girlfriend experience” (GFE) where she provides companionship for days along with sex. This all takes place in the days leading up to the 2008 US Presidential election. It was a fascinating psychosexual context mixed with politics. If there was a consistent criticism it was that it felt like two different movies at the same time.

Steven Soderbergh

If Mr. Soderbergh was desiring to make a multi-layered story using differing styles the big screen was probably not the best place for it. The current television world was. In April of 2016 The Girlfriend Experience premiered. This story follows the life of a young law school graduate, Christine Reade, as she begins her internship at a prestigious Chicago law firm. One night she meets her classmate Avery and finds out she is making a living by providing the GFE through an escort agency. Christine tags along and eventually begins her career in the GFE business. Like the earlier Soderburgh movie this television version also melds many different storylines all tenuously connected; especially early on. There is the story of a sex worker keeping her profession private. There is a corporate espionage story. There is a psychotic stalker story. There is a twisted story about family. Finally, each of the sexual encounters play like little vignettes all on their own. Each are done where the camera is unrelenting with its view of it. They all eventually coalesce into a final payoff.

The Girlfriend Experience thrives because of actress Riley Keough who manages to navigate the potential acting pitfalls of a narrative as dense is this with aplomb. Much of the work she is asked to do is done without dialogue as her facial expressions and her eyes do more storytelling than anything passing her lips. This is her first large role and it is a fantastic performance which I hope is a springboard to other things.

Her performance is particularly remarkable over the final two episodes where Christine returns home for her parent’s 30th anniversary party. Which leads to the final episode where we learn where all of this leaves her with a final scene that indicates it all might have been for nothing.

If you are looking for something to binge The Girlfriend Experience is very worthy of a few hours of your time.

Mark Behnke