Steven Soderbergh is one of the more interesting directors of the last thirty years. Starting in 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape he not only proved himself one of the more inventive directors of that year but helped launch the Independent Film movement of the 1990s. Since then he’s made films in genres as diverse as period dramas (King of the Hill), crime capers (Out of Sight), science fiction (Solaris), action (Haywire) plus many more. He shifts back and forth from big budget, crowd-pleasers like the Oceans films and Erin Brokovich to more idiosyncratic independent films like Full Frontal and Bubble.
One such independent film was The Girlfriend Experience, which starred former porn actress Sasha Gray as a high-priced call girl going about her daily life. It’s been turned into a television series for Starz network. Soderbergh is executive producing the series and you can certainly feel his presence throughout – especially in the lighting and detached, almost sterile set pieces. But he’s left the day-to-day job of writing and directing to Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. It’s not a sequel or continuation of the movie but more of an “inspired by” type thing with totally different actors, characters, and setting but following a similar premise.
It follows Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a second-year law student who has just won a hotly sought-after internship at a prestigious firm and who also works as a high-end escort. She of the type – as the title implies – who is hired by men (mostly very rich, middle-aged, and white) not so much for the sex (though there is plenty of that) but for the companionship. They take her to fancy restaurants, posh hotels, and elaborate soirées to show her off, talk, and yes, have sex. But the fantasy is not so much sexual as it is having someone who listens, who cares for them, and tends to their needs without needing anything else in return (besides cash).
They have powerful positions in prestigious companies, lots of money and nice things, and often have wives and children but they are lonely. The sex is pretense for a little intimacy. These men tend to grow very close to Christine, often vocalizing their wishes that she could be more to them, all the while paying her for her time.
There are some really interesting concepts at play in this series, but The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t always know what to do with them. It touches on such themes as sexuality, loneliness, female empowerment, but it struggles to dig deep into them and still deal with the realities of making a half-hour TV show. Who knew a series about wealthy men paying for sex could struggle so much with being interesting?
Several episodes in they seem to realize that beautifully shot beautiful people in scant amounts of clothing are no longer enough to keep audiences watching and a subplot is developed where Christine discovers her bosses at the law firm engaged in illegal activity. But it’s too little too late. Or rather it’s distracting from what should be bringing people to the show in the first place.
The one question I kept asking is “where does she find the time?” I’ve never been to law school but I can’t imagine that it leaves you with a lot of free time. Nor do I expect hotly sought-after internships at prestigious law-firms leave much time for a night life. Yet there she is, night after night, weekend after weekend, dining in expensive restaurants, attending swanky parties, and staying up into the wee hours with her rich clients.
Perhaps that’s a good indication of how the series isn’t quite sure where it wants to go. Christine needs to be more than just a prostitute. She needs to be intelligent, ambitious, and young. But that’s far too much for one character to realistically juggle. It’s more than can fully be developed in such a short time.
To be sure, the series is well made. It’s beautifully shot and well acted. Riley Keough has proved herself fully capable of handling some pretty tricky material. Her expressions remain cool and calm at most times while hiding all sorts of depth underneath. With her clients, she’s sweet, funny, and always attentive but also able to brush off questions that dig too deep into who she really is. I’ll definitely be looking for her in other things to come.
The Girlfriend Experience has some interesting ideas, but if it’s going to keep me watching for another season it needs to find better ways to say it.