Billed as being “suggested by” the Steven Soderbergh film of the same name, “The Girlfriend Experience” is an interesting if somewhat unfocused look at sexual politics. And if the full 13-episode experience of this provocative half-hour drama isn’t wholly satisfying, in a strange way, that’s also sort of the point.
Money can’t buy love, as the song goes, but in this series (which Starz is making available for binge viewing), a few grand can purchase a reasonable facsimile thereof, provided by Christine (Riley Keough), who goes by the professional name Chelsea. An intern at a Chicago law firm, she’s introduced to the world of transactional relationships by a classmate (Kate Lyn Sheil), although as is so often the case, the student quickly becomes the master — or rather, mistress. “You can be whoever you want to be,” she’s told.
Christine becomes a vessel into which these wealthy men can pour their insecurities, deepest desires and fetishes. And while there’s a certain “The customer’s always right” aspect to the service, Christine generally remains in charge, in terms of how easily manipulated her clients are, how desperate to be convinced that it’s them, not their money, that’s making her swoon.
Despite the connection to the 2009 movie, the series — co-created by Amy Seimetz (who also plays a small role as Christine’s sister) and Lodge Kerrigan, who each had a hand in writing and directing all the episodes — actually bears tonal similarities to “Klute,” the 1971 movie that earned Jane Fonda an Oscar. In Christine’s impassive expressions, it’s hard not to think of the famous scene in which, during what sounds like the throes of passion, Fonda’s Bree sneaks a peek at her watch.
At first, the show feels a trifle frustrating, inasmuch as Christine dives into this strange new world without divulging almost anything about who she is, or wants to be. Viewers see a lot of her body (and the sex scenes are graphic and frequent), but they’re treated to precious little regarding what’s going on inside her head.
Gradually, though, that becomes its own kind of mystery, and helps foster a pervasive sense of unease, one that makes this “Experience” feel far more ambitious than something like Showtime’s “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” There’s also a pointed distinction between the way Christine is essentially dismissed at work — in what amounts to her secret identity — and the power she wields over titans of industry upon donning her costume as Chelsea.
Although it’s nice to see an unabashed half-hour drama, the unorthodox storytelling approach can be confounding. While the mood stays consistent, plot threads and clients quickly come and go; at moments, the show fleetingly turns into a big-business drama, then a thriller. Intrigue at work builds around Christine’s boss (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Paul Sparks), while Mary Lynn Rajskub has precious little to do as another partner. Elements and characters that seem significant are forgotten, giving way to interludes — like a late visit to see Christine’s parents — that shed minimal light on the story.
Still, there’s something almost hypnotic about Keough’s performance (she was featured in Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike,” as well as “Mad Max: Fury Road”), augmented by the periodic fits and starts of the narrative. The net effect draws viewers in, but simultaneously denies them much clarity, which warrants masticating this dish for a while after watching, and even then debating whether an investment in “The Girlfriend Experience” was really time well spent.