Films such as “Klute,” which won actress Jane Fonda an Academy Award, have explored the notorious escort industry from a police perspective. But “The Girlfriend Experience” (GFE) takes a studied approach from the perspective of a second year law student. The Starz TV series, created from a 2009 movie feature from producer, screenwriter and director Steven Soderbergh, is more social commentary than sensational exploitation.
Through mutual friend Avery (alias Ashley) and a connection named Jacqueline, legal intern Christine Reade becomes professional escort Chelsea. At first, Christine/Chelsea does it out of curiosity. Ultimately personal choice driven by obsession, not fate or financial need, leads to a paradigm shift in priorities. Her best friend Avery knows why. “It’s the rush, excitement, money and attention.” It’s also a lucrative revenue source for defraying the cost of law school. Ultimately, law school takes a back seat to the emotional rush of the escort underworld. The going gets murkier as Christine navigates deception in her personal life and at work. She must prevent collusion between her chosen career in patent law and an escort gig that is engulfing her.
From the moment Avery introduces Christine to Jacqueline, you know who will win the competition for the best clients. “Why didn’t you tell me she’s beautiful?” Jacqueline comments to Avery. “She’s great,” Avery remarks as a look of regret fleetingly passes over her porcelain features. In only three episodes actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who plays Avery, is able to reveal the tragedy of her character’s intense longing to be loved and cared for. Christine, played by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, is tough, confident and savvy – characteristics that help put her in control. Avery’s vulnerability makes her fall victim to Jacqueline’s machinations. She loses clients, her job, a promising law career and her bank accounts. Avery’s final episode hints at suicide. But only her personal belongings are seen, scattered about in an apartment shared with Christine. Jacqueline and Christine break off their business partnership but actress Alexandra Castillo, who plays Jacqueline, will be seen again.
The first episode of Season 1 plants Christine almost too soon into the escort world. The introduction starts off as a conversation with friend Avery at the gym. Moments later it leads to a meeting with Jacqueline. It would have been more believable to first see a buoyant Christine arrive at the high rise glass and steel office of the prestigious law firm, where she hopes to intern. The last sequence of the episode should have been the eventful GFE meeting as Avery slowly opens the door to Jacqueline’s office. The mood should have been one of suspenseful anticipation instead of resigned expectation.
GFE has other quirks. In the scene when Christine is undergoing a stress interview with a sharkish team of high profile lawyers, her answer to a “tough” question seems a little too pat. Then comes the first assignment of preparing cease and desist letters. “Cut and paste. Don’t write your own,” says her boss David Tellis (actor Paul Sparks). “CTRL C and CTRL V,” he says emphatically. (He probably meant “Copy and paste.”) Cutting (CTRL X) and pasting, or copying and pasting, is not the best way to maximize the features of Microsoft Office. If mailing the letter to a party of legal clients, a form letter and mail merge would be more efficient.
But when sparks immediately fly between an attractive lawyer and his legal intern, who cares about writing a cease and desist letter or how it’s prepared? It becomes non sequitur as their relationship grows into intimacy and they immerse together into the GFE.
The acting is nuanced and the lighting muted to suggest the character’s inner conflicts. Although only 22 years old, Christine appears 20 years older as light and shadow fall over her face. In director Josef von Sternberg’s films, the light and shadow cast over actress Marlene Dietrich built up her mystique. In GFE, light and shadow reflect Christine’s crisis of conscience.
The Starz TV series has adult content and is not a Disney program.