Sarah Slade watches Elvis’s granddaughter go through The Girlfriend Experience
Once upon a time I read a novel that confused me; I didn’t know if it was a really badly written airport thriller or a satirical parody of a badly written airport thriller. But I kept reading until the end, though now I couldn’t tell you the end, because something about it kept me going. The same goes for The Girlfriend Experience, Amy Siemetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s TV series based around the life of a Chicago call-girl. I’m eight episodes in (I ran out of ironing) and while I wouldn’t call myself hooked, I’m intrigued.
The story takes place in a version of Chicago that looks like it was designed entirely from a picture stock library. This city is all vast halls, angles and glass. Christine (Riley Keough) is a law student at a very clean and tidy law school (what is it about law students? You don’t get post-grad philosophers or biologists getting up to this sort of thing in TV land). She lands an internship at a corporate law firm, all dark suits and intrigue in glass-walled offices. Her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Shell) moonlights as an escort, working for the shadowy Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo). Avery has a Louise Brooks bob and is curiously blank and charmless, like she has turned off a part of her soul.
Avery and Christine have many things in common already. Avery lives rent-free in a client/boyfriend’s Chicago flat; Christine is living in an ex-boyfriend’s spare room, both dependent on male goodwill and unwilling to change the situation. They don’t appear to have any friends apart from each other, and they regard other women with disdain. Avery introduces Christine to Jacqueline, Christine starts ‘dating’ visiting plutocrats of all shapes and sizes in her spare time, and the money starts rolling in.
So, that’s the first two episodes wrapped up. Over the next three episodes Avery and Jacqueline get shunted aside as Christine decides to fly solo. A favourite client dies and leaves her a fortune that she can only claim if she goes public, she starts an affair with her lawyer boss, discovers corporate shenanigans at the workplace and has lots of vanilla sex in lots of very tidy hotel rooms.
If there’s a story arc to the first half it appears to be Christine’s adventures in the hellmouth of greed. Christine herself is no innocent; ambitious, sexually confident and definitely not a victim. The friend and the madam are dispensed with as soon as they outlive their usefulness. The affair fizzles out and the corporate malfeasance rumbles in the background. A client gets possessive, a wife finds out…none of these situations merit more than a twitch of Christine’s immaculately painted lips. There is no back story, aside from occasional references to parents and a visit from a sister who already works as an assistant DA. Even then, the sister provides no further information than an acknowledgement that Christine has always been ‘selfish’. Riley Keough plays Christine as blank-faced and slightly distracted, allowing her clients to project whatever they want onto her (very pretty) face while she calculates her next move. She barely speaks except to deliver lines that may be the truth, but are often not. Sometimes she even smiles, but most of the time she’s sullen, defensive and ruthlessly efficient.
Things don’t start falling apart until Episode 7. Her part-time activities start interfering with the day job and she develops a strange obsession with her closed circuit tv recordings that document her intensely solitary life. But she still has no back story, no emotional connection with the audience, so why am I still interested?
It’s not the sex or occasional full-frontal nudity (mostly Christine, but sometimes the clients with their erections lurking somewhere in the shadows between the chest and the kneecap). We get around two minutes of panting and humping per episode to remind us that she is a prostitute and prostitutes are paid to have sex with people. The clients’ sexual demands are usually quite straightforward – no leather or whips here – and most of them are middle-aged or elderly men who just want a compliant pretty girl to make them feel young and horny and interesting; and a blowjob. The show is, I think about power and layers of deceit. Everyone wears a mask and behind the masks are more masks, hiding motives, crimes, and feelings. They don’t speak as much as deliver lines; Christine in particular tends to talk in cliches and stock phrases, like life is just another test to be passed. And as we rarely see her off duty, the occasional flashes of anger, fear or humour are more shocking and revealing than her nudity.
Then there are the layers of deceit and double-cross. Christine thinks she’s playing the corporate bosses and clients, the bosses think they’re playing Christine, the clients know they’re playing their wives and the wives play their husbands by paying off Christine. In fact, the most honest person in all of this is Christine, the professional liar. Christine is at the centre of this web, yet she seems unaware of how little she controls, or how close she is to failure. It doesn’t make me root for her; she’s too unlovable for that, but she’s the one who causes the least damage, which makes her the one who deserves to win.
Season One of The Girlfriend Experience is currently available on Amazon Prime