How do you shape a show around an enigma? Among the many pleasures of “The Girlfriend Experience,” Starz’s new limited series “suggested” by executive producer Steven Soderbergh‘s 2009 big-screen drama, chief is its concerted, gripping refusal to define its fascinating central character.
As played by Riley Keough in a performance that suggests much but reveals tantalizingly little, the show’s law-student heroine enraptured by the world of high-class prostitution never stops being a magnetic cipher, resulting in an “Experience” that’s unexpectedly moving and troubling.
Consisting of 13 half-hour episodes, “The Girlfriend Experience” is written and directed by co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, filmmakers known for their rich atmosphere and nuanced character work. (Before transitioning to television, Kerrigan directed the indies “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane,” while Seimetz directed “Sun Don’t Shine,” as well as acted in critically acclaimed films like “Upstream Color.”)
That pedigree helps explain why their series isn’t as interesting when it tries to be pulpy, binge-worthy storytelling as it is when it meticulously charts the progress of Christine (Keough), who’s in law school in Chicago and about to start an internship at an impressive firm.
Bright and focused, Christine seems to have no use for a serious relationship — in the first episode, she hooks up with a random guy but just as quickly discards him — and she’s intrigued by her fellow law student Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), who makes money on the side offering rich male clients a “girlfriend experience” in which they pay her thousands of dollars to spend time together and have sex.
The reasons for why Christine goes from being curious about this line of work to actively engaging in it are left mysterious — and that sets the tone for the entire series. Kerrigan and Seimetz have crafted a sexy, intelligent tale that eschews easy psychological explanations. “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t so concerned with whether Christine can keep her secret life hidden from her employers (including the hardnosed Paul Sparks and Mary Lynn Rajskub as a slightly softer but still intimidating attorney).
The show wonders why Christine wants to juggle her two worlds, instead of trying to create tension around how she does it.
Our uncertainty about how to feel toward Christine is only heightened by Keough’s emotionally withholding turn. At the office, Christine has a brusque but not exactly unfriendly demeanor — she makes polite, engaged small talk, but it never comes across as particularly warm. And when Christine becomes “Chelsea,” her escort persona, she’s seductive — the sex scenes burn — but we can always see the invisible wall between the gorgeous, alluring avatar she’s offering her clients and whatever her actual feelings are.
Christine cannot be grasped, a critical survival tool considering she must constantly stay ahead of the different forces coming her way.
It’s these exterior threats — from a possessive client to the constant danger of being exposed at her job — that can sometimes reduce “The Girlfriend Experience” to a very entertaining but somewhat familiar series filled with double-crosses, boardroom conspiracies, bedroom drama and cataclysmic revelations. There are lots of juicy twists and some melodramatic intrigue, and Kerrigan and Seimetz execute them with nicely chilly precision. But “The Girlfriend Experience” is at its best when it puts aside plot machinations to deliver a sympathetic but clear-eyed portrait of a woman discovering herself.
To even describe Christine is to risk presenting some sort of definitive take on a character who resists categorization. We sense this ambiguity in the way that other characters talk about her, with no two people having the same viewpoint. (This comes through especially poignantly in a terrific late-series episode involving Christine’s uneasy reunion with her distant parents.)
As a result, “The Girlfriend Experience” is quietly absorbing, even revelatory. This is not a story that uses a woman’s transition into prostitution to either suggest that there is something tragically “broken” about her or to create a clichéd commentary about feminism and empowerment. What is both beautiful and unsettling about the show is that, although we never entirely understand Christine’s obsession, it becomes increasingly clear that this composed, ambitious law student has finally found something that gives her life meaning. Even at the resolution of the show’s final episode, the audience won’t quite know what to make of Christine. But in a wonderfully understated last scene, “The Girlfriend Experience” argues that our confusion doesn’t matter — because she knows who she is.
“The Girlfriend Experience” premieres Sunday on Starz.