The Girlfriend Experience explores the world of paid relationships as seen through the eyes of a law student who sidelines as a high-end escort. For a price, Christine Reade (Riley Keough) offers clients emotional and sexual intimacy as Chelsea the perfect girlfriend. The 13-episode series has an intriguing premise, namely what is reality within the dynamics of transactional relationships? Yet, it loses its way with a distracting subplot and a main character that is difficult to know.
Christine is invited into the escort world through a fellow law student and quickly embraces the control it gives her. To her clients, she is the blank slate on which they write their version of the perfect intimate companion. She listens, soothes, consoles, compliments and pleases on every emotional and physical level. She is their desire come to life. Sex appears to be pleasurable for her with every client, suggesting freedom and empowerment and choice. She enjoys being Chelsea.
She is also a little more enjoyable to watch as Chelsea because that is the only time she shows any emotion, slight as it is. As opposed to Chelsea, Christine, the law student and intern at a prestigious Chicago law firm, is remote, emotionless, even robotic at times. Keough plays her straight from the Kristen Stewart school of acting. Its a performance that does service to the larger theme of reality versus artifice, since Christine is basically unknowable, but over time it grows tired.
There is nothing to feel about Christine because she expresses so little feeling. A benefit of this characterization is that when she does show brief flashes of emotion its effective because its so unexpected. In one scene, a clients wife confronts her and pays her to stop seeing her husband. Throughout the entire interaction she remains calm and distant. When the wife leaves, she reaches for her drink with shaking hands. The imagery works but there is so little shown of this side of her, its hard to relate.
The subplot revolves around the politics of the law firm where her boss is involved in some mysterious dealings. Its both a necessary storyline and a distracting one. Without it, the series would be one long string of sex scenes, which even for a show on Starz is dull. But the work intrigue is so slow to be revealed that its difficult to remain interested.
As the perfect girlfriend to wealthy men, Chelsea has a front row seat to the world of male privilege but this theme is mostly reduced to sex scenes punctuated with her whispering sweet nothings into her clients ear. Yet, Chelsea has a clearly defined role, however fake. Christine, with motivations that are so deeply hidden they are practically nonexistent, is disappointingly more of a mystery than she should be.
The Girlfriend Experience is shown on various days and times on Starz, with all season one episodes available for streaming on the Starz website.
Melissa Crawley is the author of Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Televisions The West Wing. She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.