I didn’t quite know what to expect from Starz’ new escorting drama,The Girlfriend Experience. After seeing the network’s Flesh and Bone (the story of a ballet dancer moonlighting as a stripper and being terrible at it), I had no doubt it would be very dramatic, rather too serious, and visually appealing. After all, as far as visuals go, Riley Keough as The Girlfriend Experience’s protagonist, Christine Reade, has it all—she’s white, she’s skinny, her features are pleasingly symmetrical, and her hair is reminiscent of Kate Middleton’s.
Christine Reade, the law student heroine with the hidden depths, enters our lives walking down a hotel corridor in the first shot of The Girlfriend Experience’s first episode. We see her from behind—sensible hair, sensible clothes. But the dim lights and the plush carpet she’s walking on are promising that some kind of salacious scene is imminent. Not yet though, not yet. Christine is on her way to meet her friend Avery, who has been left alone in a swanky hotel room where she’s determined to rack up the room service bill of her life.
It’s pretty obvious that Avery is going to be the one to introduce Christine to the good life of middle-aged men, money, and endless room service. (Well, not that last one, maybe, since I doubt many clients would enjoy receiving a room service bill that could cover the down payment on a new car.) Avery’s got a benefactor, a booking agent, and a taste for expensive booze. Christine, on the other hand, has drive, loose morals, and student loans. She ends up going on a double date with Avery, her sugar daddy, and a friend of his.
She is offered an envelope full of money just for being young, beautiful and willing to make tedious small talk with a balding stranger. Will she or won’t she? It’s an age old question, comparable to the moment of downfall in Shakespearean plays. In itself, taking the money is a small thing, but society’s judgment of us weighs so heavy that once you take the cash, you’re a whore, and you will remain a whore until you are dead and buried—and long after that sometimes. It’s the beginning of a chain reaction, and it hardly ever ends well—at least, not on TV.
So, in a tasteful restaurant’s bathroom (real towels!!!), Christine takes the cash and the show really shifts into gear. The booking agent, Jacqueline, is introduced. If you know one, you know them all. She’s almost a carbon copy of Secret Diary of a Call Girl’s Stephanie. She likes cash, nice restaurants, and cash, in that order. What she decidedly doesn’t like is uppity girls. Now, Christine has drive, as I mentioned. “Why should I give you thirty percent”, she asks and we want to know, too. She really shouldn’t give it to her, as it turns out. Jacqueline is sort of the Evil Queen of The Girlfriend Experience escorting world, and surprisingly unprofessional.
Now that she’s set up with a new apartment (thanks, Jackie) and a steady stream of cash income, all Christine has to do is juggle law school, her brand new internship at Corporate Hell and Partners, and the increasing number of clients and dates she takes on. While she’s ascending to the Olympus of sex work, Avery is going into a tailspin. The benefactor unceremoniously kicks her out of his lavish home, Jacqueline dumps her and steals all her money, and she decides to drop out of law school. She has served her purpose on this show: she initiated Christine. But she’s not allowed a graceful exit. Avery is a mess, for lack of a better word, but a seductive one, shiny and brittle. She leaves in secret, taking Christine’s hard earned money with her. Sex workers are allowed a downfall, but not to get up again. It’s a shame, since Avery and Christine share one of the rare moments of true intimacy in this show late one night – our budding überwhore loves women, too. If she had been allowed to stay, The Girlfriend Experience could have been another show—the story of two friends, perhaps girlfriends, who are also sex workers.
After Avery’s departure it’s Christine’s turn to fall—because for a show about sex work, The Girlfriend Experience is disappointingly bigoted and depressing. Christine isn’t allowed to be content and happy as an escort, or enjoy a career of meaningful length, even though she excels at her job. Her skillful emotional labor is truly inspiring. She manages to be reassuring yet sexy, she listens, she beds her clients’ heavy heads in her lap, metaphorically speaking. Being a rich man is exhausting, and she knows how to make it all go away during your lunch hour. When a client is short of money and close to financially ruining himself just to see her, she dumps him so gracefully he barely notices.
But besides all the rather awkward fucking, the show is very light on the daily grind of full service sex work. We never find out how she manages or hides her money, we never see her buying condoms—does she even use lube? How does she look so polished while carrying a tiny handbag? How does she organize dates, and why does she only have one phone? What about shoving sponges up her hoo-haa so she doesn’t have to lose income during her period? Just like her clients, all we get to see is the flawless end product, not the making of it.
Scary things start to happen very quickly: Jacqueline sends explicit photographs to the law firm as revenge for missing out on her thirty percent, an initially pleasant client turns into a vicious stalker, and Christine’s boss-slash-lover turns out to be morally corrupt. When her stalker sends out a secretly filmed sex tape to everyone in her contact list (including her family and every single person at her law firm) life collapses in on her. We watch Christine take hit after hit. Even when she inherits money from a client, she’s not allowed to keep it, because the angry family wants that 2.5% of the estate come what may. So they hire a seedy private detective for some professional entrapment.
Considering that she’s going through almost every one of every sex worker’s nightmares in the span of weeks, Christine rallies amazingly. She outmaneuvers the creepy boss and his accomplices and walks away with a hefty settlement. And while she isn’t able to claim the inheritance she so rightly deserves, she avoids any serious consequences, including arrest for prostitution.
I guess Christine isn’t supposed to be a likable character. She’s supposed to seem cold and manipulative, self-destructive, even. She doesn’t have friends or hobbies, even worse, she doesn’t have a romantic partner. Her life revolves around sex and money, but does it ever bother her? Should it? She enjoys getting off, and is shown frequently masturbating, which I guess is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for her selfishness?
I can’t dislike her at all. There’s no reason to. She likes to be alone, and she wants to be free of debt. What’s so bad about that? Even after Avery steals her money she’s protective of her. Her grief for the deceased client is genuine, so genuine in fact that her professional facade slips for the first time and she bungles up a date with a perfectly awful rich couple. Her short law career consists of manipulation, exploitation, and abuse, but the choice to drop that particular hell isn’t left up to her. She stage-manages her exit, she takes down everyone she can and grabs the petty cash register on the way out, so to speak, but you can see her shaking underneath, desperately fighting to keep her head above water.
Of course, as this is a show about sex work, she’s not particularly close with her family either. And maybe the show got that bit a little more right than the rest. There’s nothing bad, offensive, or particularly toxic about Christine’s family, but they don’t love her unconditionally either, and in the end she doesn’t have much in common with them. It’s easier to leave than to fight that. They are disappointed in her “choices”, full of righteous anger, but they never give her the benefit of the doubt. They assume that she sent out a humiliating, potentially incriminating sex tape to every single person she knew just because. With family like that, who needs enemies?
The Girlfriend Experience is so intent on telling A Serious Tale, it misses all opportunities for humor or (forgive me) shades of grey. Nobody seems to have done proper research about escorting either, or how else did “dinner at the Y” end up in the final script? The last of thirteen episodes consists almost entirely of a role play for a client—she as the cheating wife, a male escort as her lover, the client hovering around, alternately violently masturbating and breaking the fourth wall. Christine is a career escort now, with the wardrobe and attitude to match. The final shot is of her masturbating alone in a beautiful piece of real estate with a spectacular view.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tedious. You can feel that the writers really cared about this show and wanted it to be meaningful, but what did they create? Another boring and badly researched morality play about selling sex, something we needed like a hole in a condom.