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TV Review: ‘The Girlfriend Experience,’ Season 2

An ambitious premise for the second installment of the Starz anthology series ends up producing lukewarm results

With:
"Erica & Anna": Anna Friel, Louisa Krause, Narges Rashidi. "Bria": Carmen Ejogo, Tunde Adebimpe, Harmony Korine, Morgana Davies

On its own, the premise for “The Girlfriend Experience’s” second season is simply thrilling: Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz each took on half of the season’s episode order and made it their own — writing, direction, characters, the works, completely independent of their co-showrunner. The two storylines, “Erica & Anna” (Kerrigan’s) and “Bria” (Seimetz’s) are airing simultaneously, almost on top of each other: Starz will air one episode from “Erica & Anna” and one from “Bria” every Sunday for seven weeks. But the characters don’t overlap; the worlds do not intersect; the storylines never meet.

There is something breathtakingly original about this concept; watching the full season feels like a game of connecting the dots between the two worlds. Once the full season is available, viewers will have the same option that critics reviewing the series did: Multiple entry points and journeys through the material, whether that’s marathon-watching each story separately or flipping back and forth between the two.

Unfortunately, though, the execution of the individual plotlines doesn’t rise to the level of the season’s overall innovation — or to “The Girlfriend Experience’s” magnificent first season, which took on the erotic gaze with unflinching ferocity. In both storylines, the titular girlfriend experience itself seems sidelined in favor of other topics — the criminal justice system, the incestuous relationship between money and American politics, and the many ways in which romantic relationships can be complicated by power and possession. In “Erica & Anna,” especially, which is set in Washington, D.C. (really, a poorly disguised Toronto), sex work and even the sex worker herself seem secondary to the aims of the filmmaker.

This is not to say that “The Girlfriend Experience” has lost its magic entirely. The series is still directed and produced beautifully, with a soundscape so precise and intimate that it is haunting and immersive in a way little else on television can even approach. (See also: “Twin Peaks: The Return.”) The two halves have wildly different strengths. “Bria” is cinematically stunning, with a few sequences that are going to be hard to forget anytime soon. “Erica & Anna” is a much more straightforward story, with a chilly aesthetic that makes “House of Cards” look upbeat. But the relative opacity of “Bria’s” story beats — and the oddly pat metaphors of “Erica & Anna” — left me with the wish that these two well-matched directors might, you know, collaborate.

Of the two, “Bria” is the stronger. Bria Jones (Carmen Ejogo) is the alias of a former mistress now in protective custody in New Mexico. Her former lover was a dangerous crimelord, but although he was increasingly violent, he kept her in a mansion, with beautiful dresses and impractical high heels. Now she is in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, and her cover job is sorting cans at a factory. Bria is too determined to maintain her preferred way of life to be satisfied with what the federal government has in mind for her, but the journey through this period of her life is rife with terror, real and imagined. Seimetz’s vision for her — and of her — is continually striking, charged with a kind of faded glory that is at odds with the mesas and cacti under her chunky heels. One of Bria’s white dresses particularly captures Seimetz’s attention, and the way the director repeatedly interprets and re-interprets the image of Bria in the dress is captivating up until the final second of the final episode.

But it is generally challenging to understand what’s going on — or, to be exact, how to respond emotionally to what is going on. Ojogo has not been directed to display the same knowing vulnerability that Riley Keough deployed in the first season, so Bria is sometimes — often — purely a victim of circumstance, extremely vulnerable and desperate. Harmony Korine’s presence as motivational speaker Paul is memorable but largely inexplicable, and a subplot with Bria’s “adopted daughter” Kayla (Morgana Davies) is intriguing but doesn’t get anywhere. Ejogo most successfully plays off of Tunde Adebimpe, who plays Ian, the U.S. Marshal warding Bria. He nakedly manipulates her, responding both to his own desire and the practicality of keeping her under his control; what results is a few of the most beautiful scenes of abuse you might find today, including one that alters the course of the story.

“Erica & Anna,” meanwhile, offers up the curious situation of a male writer and director telling a story of two lesbians. The story begins by focusing on Anna (Louisa Krause), an escort with apparently mixed feelings about her work, and then shifts to center on Erica (Anna Friel), a DC powerbroker who shuttles money through her super PAC. The connection is not very subtle: Just as Anna is a whore, so is Erica, albeit for very different sums of money. “Erica & Anna” is a steely, dispassionate dissection of sex as power, and at first it’s an electrifying story. Friel in particular is a fantastic performer, and sometimes Kerrigan’s lens just focuses on her eyes, which can either well up with frustrated tears or shutter in Erica’s emotions, as changeable as the sky reflected in a lake.

But “Erica & Anna’s” fascinating eroticism goes thoroughly off the rails in the back half of the season. It’s a reflection of the characters’ lust for both power and subordination, and they are joined by Erica’s ex Darya (Narges Rashidi) in an unstable triumvirate of selfishness that makes everyone truly unlikeable. Yes, sex is power is politics is money, but beyond the allegory, it’s hard to know what to conclude about these incredibly dysfunctional characters or the relentless political machine they live in. Everyone can be bought or sold out, nothing is sacred, yadda yadda yadda. If I wanted to watch “House of Cards,” I would just watch “House of Cards.”

The odd thing about the season as a whole is that neither storyline is particularly positive about or even immersed in the details of sex work. What was so stunning about Season 1 was Christine’s full embrace of the life she’d chosen, in defiance of the viewer’s expectations. In Season 2, though, both Bria and Anna seem truly disturbed — either through trauma or other emotional instability — in the pursuit of their professions. For Bria, turning tricks appears to be a compulsion; for Anna, it appears to frequently trigger some kind of loathing, either directed at herself or at the man she’s servicing. But perhaps more importantly, sex work is just not central to either story. Bria’s career as an escort is almost entirely in the past, except for brief, furtive attempts in New Mexico. And Anna is slowly sidelined in the story to make way for Erica, who seems to be Kerrigan’s real fascination. Who exactly is the girlfriend, here, and what is their supposed experience?

It does not escape notice that in attempting this bifurcated season, Kerrigan and Seimetz have essentially created two episodic films, about three hours long each, under the guise of television. When I spoke to them, they both affirmed to me how much they wanted to push past the expected definitions of television with this format. That’s fine, of course. But the takeaway of Season 2 suggests that perhaps Seimetz and Kerrigan would have rather made films about the topics that really interest them, without the constraints of being tied to sex work. TV does require some continuity. That’s not always the most creative option, but as “The Girlfriend Experience’s” many clients remind us, it doesn’t have to be particularly creative to be satisfying.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'The Girlfriend Experience,' Season 2

Anthology series, 14 episodes (14 reviewed): Starz, Sun. Nov. 5, 9 p.m. 30 min.

Production: Executive producers, Amy Seimetz, Lodge Kerrigan, Steven Soderbergh, Philip Fleishman, Jeff Cuban, Andrew Fierberg ("Erica & Anna"), Adele Romanski ("Bria")

Cast: "Erica & Anna": Anna Friel, Louisa Krause, Narges Rashidi. "Bria": Carmen Ejogo, Tunde Adebimpe, Harmony Korine, Morgana Davies

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