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November 3, 2017

The Girlfriend Experience: a welcome return for TV’s most audacious drama

It’s easy to make a case for why, on paper, The Girlfriend Experience is the last thing we need right now.

In an ever-expanding world of original programming, small-screen networks and platforms have been feeling the desperation that’s affected their larger-screen counterparts for decades. In an attempt to lure viewers away from tenacious competitors, pre-awareness has become an increasingly attractive quality, leading execs to turn any and every film into a series (see: The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, Westworld, Taken, etc), prioritizing familiarity over originality and blurring the lines between warring media.

Taking Steven Soderbergh’s middling 2009 drama The Girlfriend Experience as the jump-off for a more expansive small-screen iteration was hardly a thrilling proposition when it was revealed on Starz last year. The show, like the film, focuses on an escort who offers the titular high-end service, meaning that a client would receive the illusion of a partner rather than a more transactional sexual encounter, and in a time of increased opportunities for women on television, something about it seemed at best regressive and at worst exploitative. While female sexuality has been explored in depth in the last year, thanks to Insecure, Better Things and Fleabag, there still remains an industry standard of oversexualization. It feels even less necessary given recent horrifying tales of Hollywood harassment, abuse and reductive objectification.

But The Girlfriend Experience isn’t a show about titillation.

Soderbergh recruited the indie duo Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz to take the concept and run with it, transforming a simple logline into a first season that worked best as a chilly, creepily bewitching character study. Riley Keough, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, played the fascinatingly unknowable Christine, a woman questioning whether she might be a sociopath, pushing her sexual limits as a form of therapy, shaking herself to see if there’s anything inside. The writing was sparse, the direction cold and the queasy sound design filled with a lingering sense of dread. It was like watching a horror film without any tangible horror.

Eighteen months on and the show returns, but despite the strong critical reaction to the first run and to Keough, Kerrigan and Seimetz have decided to replace her with three new leads whose stories play out in two unconnected timelines. It’s a brave move and, given the audaciously minimalist nature of the first season, many other shows would choose to fill in gaps that don’t necessarily need filling. But Christine’s story will remain enigmatically untouched (second season showrunners, there’s a lesson here), and instead, we’re following Anna (Louisa Krause), Erica (Anna Friel) and Bria (Carmen Ejogo).

Each week will consist of two half-hour segments: one that follows the Washington-based Anna and Erica and the other focusing on Bria in New Mexico. It’s the DC storyline that shares most of its DNA with the first season, taking place in similarly stark surroundings, from cold, ultra-modern hotels to clinical conference rooms. Erica is a Republican financier whose dealings bring her to Anna, an escort who has been secretly taping one of her powerful clients. Why? “Because he’s a misogynist and a fucking pig,” she says. “He deserves whatever he gets.”

While the first season was filled with scenes of Christine meeting older men for sex, her job working in a legal office also produced surprisingly impactful drama, as eerily tense and attention-grabbing despite the dry surface. There’s more pronounced business intrigue in season two as Erica and Anna play an increasingly intricate game of chess with the powerful men that surround them. A thrilling unpredictability still hovers throughout, with episodes that don’t structurally conform to half-hour norms, finishing unexpectedly, prioritizing mood and atmosphere over plot. There’s also yet more frightening sound work, this time from Dave Patterson, replacing the Upstream Color director, Shane Carruth; most scenes are dominated by a chilling industrial hum (a pedestrian scene of Erica using an escalator somehow feels hellish in his hands).

There’s a slightly more visible formula to the other storyline, although its protagonist remains as delicately drawn and the details of her predicament are lightly scattered, to put it mildly. Bria is a retired escort, placed into witness protection after supplying information about her abusive criminal boyfriend. Her lavish lifestyle is replaced by a dull, factory-working existence and she makes a potentially life-threatening decision to return to her old occupation.

Both stories are about performance, whether it be professional, romantic, social or sexual. The three women are often forced into playing roles that society thrusts upon them. Bria’s new life sees her stuck in an uneasy family situation with a US marshal and the daughter of her ex, unhappily in tow. She has no maternal affection towards the daughter and no interest in looking after anyone but herself, even if her life might depend on such pretense. She’s far more interested in sexual pleasure and returning to the luxury she has grown accustomed to.

With Kerrigan taking charge of DC, Seimetz takes on New Mexico and while a similar insidious tone persists, there’s an opposing style at play. The score is more traditional yet still puts us on edge while we’re afforded a richer color palette away from the unsettlingly gray uniformity of the city. It’s rather like watching two artful indie thrillers in chapters, each with similar themes but strikingly different.

It’s rare to see a show filled with such mysterious complexity, stridently defying the conventions that would traditionally make a show seem initially binge-worthy. It’s a cliffhanger-free zone. We’re not desperate to see more because of button-pushing plot machinations but instead we want to see how far the characters will go and whether, through action rather then exposition, we can uncover more about their fractured psychology. The Girlfriend Experience burrows itself under the skin and stays there, a tantalizing example of less being more, and with its dark, daring second season, the show reclaims its place as the most compelling drama on TV.

The Girlfriend Experience airs on Starz in the US on Sundays starting 5 November at 10pm and in the UK on Amazon Prime from 6 November.

THE GUARDIAN

Supervising Sound Editor: Dave Paterson

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