The Girlfriend Experience: Season 1 (2016)
I’ve never worked in a corporate law firm, but many of my friends have, and from the anecdotes they’ve told me I’d wager that The Girlfriend Experience is one of the most accurate and least romanticised visions of this particular slice of hell ever committed to screen. Based on the film by Steven Soderbergh, it occupies an odd niche between mainstream and arthouse television, since while it originally aired on the Starz network, it is written and directed in its entirety by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, both of whose careers testify, in different ways, to the continued existence and possibility of genuinely independent cinema in an era in which even the most rigorously indie impulses often seem at risk of being co-opted by mainstream Hollywood. Occupying a position somewhere between Soderbergh’s original indie vision and this more marginal indie sensibility, the series revolves around Christine Reade, played by Riley Keough, an intern at a prominent Chicago law firm who decides to become an escort to help pay for her rent and day-to-day expenses until she manages to finish law school. To describe her movement into the world of escorting as a decision, however, doesn’t quite do the series justice: it’s more like escorting emerges in Christine’s life as a natural corollary or supplement to her life at the law firm, as well as a way of rehearsing and refining the kinds of semblances of subjectivity and affective labour that are critical to whether she is hired at the end of her internship.
Critical to the series’ peculiar ambience, however, is the way in which Seimetz and Kerrigan refrain from focusing exclusively on Christine’s life at the firm or her life as an escort, tracing out the space between these two activities so as to make it feel as if we are perpetually poised on the very fringe of Christine’s life – or that Christine herself is poised at the very fringe of her life, which, as it turns out, is where she most prefers to be. While all kinds of explanations are offered by other people as to why she has chosen this particular lifestyle – some people call her a nymphomaniac, other people brand her a sociopath – Christine offers a much simpler explanation every time anyone queries her motivations: she likes to be alone and prefers her own company to that of anyone around her. While that might sound like a somewhat antisocial or aggressive mindset, it actually feels pretty sympathetic, since – with the brief exception of a trip to Christine’s family home in the second last episode – she never seems to encounter anybody who is capable of fully shedding their professional persona, nor anybody who is capable of envisaging any kind of interaction that is not qualified by their professional life in some manner or another. As a result, becoming an escort often feels like a way of escaping work, or of hiding in plain sight, allowing Christine to luxuriate in a solitude and introspection that is not offered by mere physical isolation or mere empty space.
In large part, that is because the inextricability of personal and professional life that Seimetz and Kerrigan sketch stems from the inextricability of physical and digital life: once the parameters of the workplace become digital, rather than physical, the distinction between working time and non-working time becomes more diffuse and inchoate. To a large extent, it is this strange diffused working space that Christine inhabits as an escort, just as her particular specialty – providing a “girlfriend experience” – revolves around offering her clients a simulation of genuine affection, concern and even romance, rather than mere sexual gratification. It’s no surprise, then, that one of her workplace liabilities turn out to be clients who become jealous and paranoid about her performed sincerity – that is, clients who can’t fully commit to the fiction that she is not at work – while her own biggest challenge is keeping the boundaries between work and non-work operative in her own mind as well. That’s not to say that Christine ever really feels at risk of falling for a client: that fate befalls her friend and mentor, Avery Suhr (Kate Lyn Sheil), who plays a big role in the first couple of episodes but then fades from sight, as if Seimetz and Kerrigan were offering her as an example of one of the most predictable narrative directions the series might have taken if it weren’t so elusive and adventurous. While Christine certainly enjoys her job more and more, it’s not because she falls for the clients exactly – or that work ceases to feel like work – but because that strange and supple space between work and non-work comes to be a source of pleasure and introspective isolation in itself, which creates problems both when escorting becomes too pleasurable but also when escorting becomes too displeasurable as well.
Like Christine, the series also positions itself in that distended space between a professional subjectivity and a more “authentic” subjectivity, thanks in part to its shortform structure, with most episodes barely reaching the thirty-minute mark. Now that we all know that quality television has effectively incorporated cinema, there’s not a great deal of surprise or ingenuity left in the gesture of longer or movie-length episodes. Instead, post-quality television has tended to return to traditional modes of seriality, even or especially as they seem somewhat incongruous with the Netflix model that has become more or less hegemonic across most televisual platforms. Along with The Girlfriend Experience, the two most original new series this year – for me, at least – have been American Crime Story and Horace and Pete, both of which also resist the lavish movie-length expansiveness of, say, House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, albeit in quite different ways. On the one hand, American Crime Story consciously populates its mise-en-scenes with “90s” actors and a distinctively 90s sense of suspense and style, resulting in a televisual experience that only fully ramifies when watched week-to-week, in the same way as the original O.J. phenomenon was so dependent on the distended urgency of the ongoing news coverage of the trial itself. At the other extreme, Horace and Pete has opted for variable-length episodes, something that has admittedly occurred on Netflix but generally in the spirit of exigency rather than as the flamboyantly stylistic gesture on display here, with Louis CK taking advantage of his personal streaming platform to time his “episodes” anywhere from twenty-five to seventy minutes in length.
While The Girlfriend Experience might opt for stable-length episodes, the brevity of these episodes is somewhat astonishing and incongruous with the drama itself, whose multiple levels of intrigue always seem to require more time and more exploration than this shortform approach allows. First and foremost, that beautifully captures this weird space between the fringes of two workplaces – corporate law and escorting – as well as the kinds of fringe subjectivity – not completely professional, not completely personal – that populate the series as a whole. While there are countless law dramas that centre on an intern, a junior associate or some other underdog rising up through the ranks, they’re nearly always told from the perspective of the firm itself, insofar as the structure and subjectivity of the firm is centred, foregrounded and relatively transparent. The Girlfriend Experience, by contrast, focuses on the weird kind of fringe existence allocated to these junior staff – and to the intern in particular – in what often feels like a hollowed out and evacuated version of The Good Wife, with Christine’s managing partner, David Tellis (Paul Sparks), often playing as Josh Charles’ Will Gardner returned from the dead. As much as I love Sparks, then, I often found myself wondering whether Charles would have been the perfect choice for this role, not just because of how brilliantly it would have resonated with and revised The Good Wife’s vision of Chicago law, but also because his transition from one series to another would have worked quite eloquently alongside the way Robert and Michelle King chose to figure and imagine his absence in the final season of their series.
With a thirty-minute running span, then, we don’t ever really get to know the characters any more than they might get to know each other in a professional context. In that kind of environment, moments of subjectivity, independence and introspection are as fleeting as they are precious, and yet somehow peculiarly attuned to this short running time as well. While quality television has tended to envisage the thirty-minute episode as a sign of constriction – at least in drama – Seimetz and Kerrigan seem prescient that, handled right, brevity can also prevent things ever stabilising enough to preclude the horizon of something beyond the series’ world as well. While every episode may seem to box Christine in further, then, the provisionality of it all suggests a line of flight that is always just around the corner, creating an emergent, fugitive subjectivity that prevents the drama ever settling or solidifying around a single plot point. For the most part, each episode feels like a mere encounter, or a series of encounters, with the most climactic episode – episode 11 – followed by a brilliant lateral move in which Christine spends a weekend in Toronto, leaving the mounting events of the story proper at an oblique distance as she takes us through one denuded and anonymised Canadian space after another. In contemporary Hollywood, Toronto often stands in as a cheaper version of New York, partly because it vaguely resembles the Big Apple, but partly because of precisely this architectural anonymity, which renders it somewhat protean when placed before the camera lens. Part of the genius of episode 12 is the way in which it converges this anonymity and malleability with the series’ own supple position on the fringes of professional life, making for a series of spaces that feel pregnant and redundant at the same time, and linger long in the mind after the episode has ended.
Yet that Toronto aside merely culminates an extraordinary spatial sensibility on the part of the series as a whole, with virtually all the action taking place in the restaurants, penthouses and other semi-social spaces that form the connective tissue between Christine’s life as an escort and her life at the law firm. As the series evolves, it comes to feel as if one of the key reasons why Christine is initially unable to achieve a genuine experience of isolation – and a genuine experience of the splendid isolation of orgasm – is because physical space no longer ramifies in the way necessary to produce genuine solitude, with even the most private recesses in the series, as well as the spaces most remote from working life, colonised by the very digital technology that has broken down the distinction between personal and professional life in the first place. To that end, Seimetz and Kerrigan sketch out an extraordinary panorama of what might be describes as post-spaces, zones which bear witness to the decay of physical structure itself as a category in the same way that ruins bear witness to the decay of specific physical structures. As might be expected, that produces a series of incredible compositions and perfectly curated mise-en-scenes, partly because Christine’s clients are so careful to curate spaces around her, to the point where it feels as if her sexual function is subordinated to her ability to set off a space in just the right way, or to act as the point of transition between the spaces she inhabits and their digital transfiguration. In a very real way, the backdrops are a major character in the film – the location scouting must have been a massive feat – partly because they gradually seem to converge on a single mise-en-abyme, thanks to the proliferation of massive windows in nearly every space we encounter, all of which promise to open up onto the wider life of the city, but instead simply reiterate the overwhelming sense of insularity and isolation, since all we ever seem to glimpse are more office blocks, mirror images of the space we are inhabiting at any one moment. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a series that was as removed from street level as The Girlfriend Experience, with the few ventures down from these lofty heights suffused with the chilly surrealism and uncanny estrangement that, for me, always attends business districts and corporate precincts at the pedestrian level.
In that whole spatial configuration, the only expansive sight lines we do get lead onto Lake Michigan, and yet even then we don’t actually see the Lake so much as periodically apprehend a sudden, brutal, chilling freefall of space, a slab of vertiginous iciness that recapitulates and abstracts the high rise logic that dominates every other vista. As if to cloister us even further in this post-human district, Seimetz and Kerrigan opt for virtually no non-diegetic accompaniment – with the exception of a skeletal and intermittent synth score by Shane Carruth, the entire series takes place against the cloistered hush of high-end corporate spaces, to the point where it feels as if the series is trying to inhabit a space that is quieter than white noise, just as Christine is trying to find a form of isolation and solitude that exceeds mere physical isolation. In a strange kind of way, that heightened silence and solitude forms something of a utopian horizon within the series, which is perhaps why Christine’s final departure from the law firm for a full-time escorting career feels like a victory of sorts, at least in the extraordinary final episode, most of which is devoted to a client who requires her to simply act out the role of his unfaithful wife with a male escort. At first, this plays as one of the most dramatic violations of Christine’s privacy, but as we figure out what is going on it seems to confirm just how irreducible and inviolable her privacy has become, as she buries herself deep within her role until it feels as if absolutely nothing of herself comes through in this final performance of sincerity and subjectivity.
It’s a strange twist, then, that we end up knowing less about Christine by the end of the series. Usually, drama proceeds by bringing us closer to the main character, but far from ameliorating us to Christine’s profession by explaining, analysing or pathologising it, The Girlfriend Experience simply sets up the aesthetic conditions required for her to retreat into the remoteness that she has wanted all along. If her best bet for solitude is tapping into the inherent lonelieness of physical space as it is left behind by the rising tide of digital subjectivity, then – in the most exquisite and fragile way – Seimetz and Kerrigan open up that lonelieness for her. It takes a peculiarly gifted actor to progressively remove herself from the audience in that way without simply turning that removal into a more intimate form of allure in the process, and watching it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact of Keough being Elvis’ granddaughter, as well as how that contoured my engagement with the series as a whole. In part, that has to be a result of how perfectly the series derealises and estranges us from the relationships and moments between older men and younger women – both romantic and familial – that are taken for granted on television. At the same time, I think it’s also because Keough draws upon and distills something about both Elvis and Lisa-Marie Presley that has always felt remote and withdrawn from me, even or especially as both celebrities achieved, in their very different ways, a particularly distinctive kind of proximity to their audience and fanbase. In effect, Elvis provided one of the first bona fide mass boyfriend experiences in the entertainment industry, and while Lisa-Marie’s subsequent career may have worked through that, it is Keough who feels like its real beneficiary, since her remoteness here has all the trappings of Elvis’ celebrity aura, but transplanted to an era in which the erosion of privacy has turned that aura into something stranger and colder than Elvis would have ever envisaged. In the process, not only do Seimetz and Kerrigan decisively remake Soderbergh in their own vision, but they offer up one of the most original and haunting series of 2016, beautifully using the anthology format to make each episode feel like a one-off masterpiece, while embedding it in a looser and eerier matrix at the same time.
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