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TV Review - "The Girlfriend Experience" is more complex than its name implies

April 3, 2016 Updated: April 4, 2016 at 12:11 pm
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“The Girlfriend Experience”

Cast:
Riley Keough (“The Runaways,” “Jack and Diane”), Paul Sparks (“House of Cards,” “Boardwalk Empire”), Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24,” “2 Broke Girls”), Kate Lyn Sheil (“House of Cards,” “Knife Point”), Alex Castillo (“Rookie Blue,” “Lucky 7”)

Airs:
 The series premieres Sunday, April 10 on Starz 

The premise: Christine Reade (Riley Keough) is a second year law student in Chicago and a new intern at a prestigious firm. Working hard to establish herself, her focus quickly shifts when a classmate introduces her to the world of transactional relationships. Known as GFEs, they are women who provide The Girlfriend Experience — emotional and physical relationships at a very high price. Juggling two different lives, Christine quickly finds herself drawn into the GFE world, attracted to the rush of control and intimacy.

Steven Soderbergh, Philip Fleishman, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz are Executive Producers of the series. Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz are the co-creators and wrote and directed all 13 episodes.

Highs: Judging by the name alone its understandable why someone might think “The Girlfriend Experience” is a show that glorifies a salacious lifestyle but this series is complex. Christine, the focal point of the series, is nuanced and layered. This isn’t a woman who just performs services for money, there’s more to her than that.  

Christine is leading a double life. When we first meet her, she’s struggling, living with her ex-boyfriend and unable to pay the rent. During the day she’s swamped with her job as an intern and her law school studies. This version of Christine, while supremely intelligent and excellent at her job, mostly goes unnoticed. Both in her wardrobe and in her daytime roles, she becomes just another face in the crowd to classmates and most people at work. When the sun is out, Christine blends into whatever environment she’s in. At night is a different story.

Away from school and the office, when not worrying about paying for school or her apartment, Christine is in control. Providing a girlfriend experience puts her in charge of people who make the type of decisions employees like Christine usually end up carrying out. This role reversal is empowering but also profitable. Sure, she’ll sometimes have to listen to a client talk about their issues with work, their children or some other mundane matter, but Christine is the one who sets the terms. In this world, her brilliant mind and ability to think strategically is more helpful than during the day.  

But the plot of this series is more complicated then a woman trying to make money while going to law school. There are a number of other factors that make Christine’s life convoluted and make her question what she’s doing. Her close friend Avery is a loose canon and possibly mentally unstable, her escort boss tries to manipulate her, and any man in her life that she sees either professional or personally doesn’t last long. At one point, Christine even asks her sister if she thinks she’s a sociopath. This is a woman who has charisma, beauty and brains but is also lost.  

Lows:
Aside from Christine there are few other interesting characters and the ones that are noteworthy appear onscreen too infrequently. A friend and older sister help draw out some of Riley Keough’s more humanizing qualities but they’re rarely around. The men in Christine’s life face the same dilemma. There are some truly engaging male clients and co-workers but they just don’t stick around for very long. This is a shame as Paul Sparks and Mary Lynn Rajskub are fine actors without much to do.  

While fairly well rounded, there are some holes in Christine’s character development. Most importantly, viewers have no idea why she’s choosing to live a double life. Was it a traumatic childhood? A desperate need for control? Could she actually be a sociopath? What she’s doing is aberrant behavior. Why does she do it? There were no hints as to what Christine’s motivations are in the first six episodes that I watched, which can make it challenging for viewers to sympathize with her actions. 

Grade: (B)
Even though it has its share of racy moments, don’t let the name fool you. There’s a lot more to “The Girlfriend Experience” then its title would imply. First rate production values, an alluring lead and a provocative world makes for intriguing television. 

Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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