Well, that was weird.
But in a pretty good kind of way.
I just binge-watched the new Starz series (I think “anthology” is the term they’re using). Thirteen episodes in 3 days is a lot to take in, even though — fortunately — each episode is only 30 minutes.
So what’s it all about?
Christine Reade is a law student who’s just landed an internship with a prestigious law firm. She’s dedicated and ambitious, and scrimping by on limited funds. She is also, the opening episode makes clear, completely unemotional and uninhibited when it comes to sex. She picks up a guy in a bar, completely calls the shots when it comes to their sexual encounter, and then gets dressed and leaves, despite being asked to spend the night. She doesn’t need his number, and she doesn’t need chit-chat. She got what she wanted, and she’s out.
When Christine’s law school buddy Avery fills her in on how she acquires such fabulous clothes, jewelry, and toys (hint: rich man with lavish spending habits), Christine is cautiously interested in learning more.
And learn she does. Avery introduces her to the world of “girlfriend experience” escorting — basically, charging insane amounts of money to wealthy men who want more than just sex. For a price, they get a gorgeous woman dedicated to making them happy, willing to give them her undivided attention, listen to their hopes, dreams, and worries… and yes, indulge whatever sexual fantasies they have as well.
Christine assumes the name Chelsea, sets up a website, makes a deal with a broker/madam, and quickly starts raking in the cash. Her double life becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, as her escorting business is going so well that she misses class, and an ill-advised workplace sexual entanglement threatens to spiral out of control.
It’s interesting to watch Christine’s transformation, all the more so because it’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking or why she does what she does.
Money appears to be an issue, but she’s not desperate or in especially bad straits. She seems to be devoted to her law career, and to have the single-minded dedication to succeed, but gives it all up fairly easily when it no longer suits her. Christine is adept at manipulating and maneuvering, turning seemingly catastrophic situations to her own advantage.
She seems to be all about control and pretense. Christine’s ability to adapt, find a way to give another what they want, and come out with what she wants is evident from the start. As we watch her interview for internships, we get a first glimpse of Christine’s innate talent for understanding the best way to please and present herself as the most desirable. This serves her well later on, of course, as she quickly becomes the perfect girlfriend for pay. She never says no. She’s never in a bad mood. When a client asks her if she’d like something, whether a particular sex act or to go on a trip with him or to spend a whole lot more time together, the answer isn’t just “yes” — it’s “I’d love that”.
But is she actually enjoying any of this? What is she getting from her business that she needs? Is it just about financial security, glamor, admiration? Christine/Chelsea apparently enjoys sex A LOT, but is any of it genuine? She puts on a great act and is always enthusiastically responsive, but it also appears that perhaps the only sex acts she’s truly enjoying are the ones when she’s alone.
She appears to enjoy the company of the men she’s with, but does she? Most of them — the kind with the ability to spend $1,000 per hour for her companionship — seem like spoiled rich jerks who’d rather buy a relationship than work for one. The exception here is an older man, a widower who cares for Christine in a way that seems genuine — and I couldn’t help believing that he touched her heart in a way none of the others did.
Even when Christine’s worlds collide and it seems like she’ll be buried by catastrophic scandal, she manages to pull herself together and figure out exactly what she needs to come out of the disaster not just in one piece, but at a profit. There’s a tremendous piece of acting in here, as Christine is forced to do a walk of shame through the office, holding onto a wall of filing cabinets for support, before having a complete and utter meltdown at her desk. But does she really have a meltdown? Right before the walk, we see Christine first prep herself around the corner, taking deep breaths, before coming out all weak-kneed and devastated. Christine has learned never to show weakness, and if she appears weak here, it’s because she intends to.
By the end of the season, Christine is working independently, consulting financial advisers, living in a fabulous apartment, and in total control of her own life. Is she happy? No idea. But she is successful and seems to be completely calling her own shots.
Christine is played by Riley Keough**, whose looks transform easily from conservative law intern to super-hot working girl. Her face is a picture of absolute stillness much of the time, and it’s impossible to tell what’s going on behind the surface beauty.
**Daughter of Lisa Marie, grand-daughter of Priscilla and Elvis Presley — and yes, the resemblance is mind-blowing and occasionally distracting.
The look of the show is cool, elegant, and clean-edged. The hotel rooms where the action takes place are all large and uncluttered, with huge windows. Seriously, this series has more rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows than I’ve ever seen. The colors are mostly muted and understated, and everything seems removed from real life and real messiness in a way that fits completely with Christina’s detached, controlled affect.
In the early episodes, we see Christine laughing unguardedly in a casual moment. I can’t remember seeing her laugh at all by the later episodes — but if she does, it’s because that’s what the situation calls for. Like her clothing and her apartment, everything is planned and delivered for maximum effect.
It hardly seems necessary, but I suppose I should point that anyone thinking of trying this series should be aware that it includes adult content, language, nudity, and sexual situations. The sex scenes are explicit without being graphic — no genitalia on display or anything, but you pretty much see everything but.
I did wish that the show found a way to make plainer how much time had elapses between episodes. Because Starz released all 13 episodes right from the start, binge-watching seems like the way to go, but it wasn’t until I finally listened to one of the “behind the scenes” pieces at the end of an episode that I realized that months had supposedly gone by. Having a better understanding of the time frame of the events would help put Christine’s evolving self into better context.
I did find The Girlfriend Experience pretty fascinating on the whole, even though Christine’s inner life was intentionally concealed and enigmatic. Still, it’s mesmerizing to see a young woman taking such utter control by using her looks, sexuality, and ability to please to gain power in her life.
Meanwhile, I did a bit more Googling about the show, and it sounds as though the use of “anthology” here means that there will be another (or more) seasons of The Girlfriend Experience, but about a completely different set of characters. Um, okay? I got pretty hooked pretty fast on Christine’s weird life, but considering the quality and thought that went into this production, I’d be up for seeing whatever the next chapter ends up being about.