Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2016)
A spin-off of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie, 2016’s The Girlfriend Experience gives us a Starz TV series. This two Blu-ray set includes all of Season One's 13 episodes. The plot synopses come from the series’ official website.
Entry: “Law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough) lands an internship at a prestigious Chicago firm but when a classmate introduces her to the world of transactional relationships, her focus begins to shift.”
Though “Entry” essentially exists as an expositional episode, it doesn’t go beyond basics. That means we learn of Christine’s educational/employment status and her potential push toward “Girlfriend Experience” status but not more. The show delivers a rudimentary opening but doesn’t do much to pull us into its universe. Hopefully that’ll change soon.
A Friend: “Christine begins living a double life - working as a GFE, while pursuing her legal career.”
Like the first episode, “Friend” takes us on a slow journey. While I don’t require anything slam-bang, I’d like to find a little more meat on the series’ bones, as “Friend” keeps things too detached to develop much interest. We’re still in exposition mode when we need stronger forward movement.
Retention: “Christine becomes concerned by the level of Jacqueline's (Alexandra Castillo) control and confronts her, while David (Paul Sparks) enlists Erin's (Mary Lynn Rajskub) help, in an attempt to retain one of the firm's top clients.”
Does “Retention” heat up matters? A little, but not to a substantial degree. The main issue remains the vagueness of the lead character. While I think Experience can leave Christine as something of an open book, its refusal to give her much dimensionality so far leaves a void.
Crossing the Line: “Christine juggles the demands of her internship, law school and a growing roster of GFE clients. Christine observes tension and conflict amongst the partners at David's annual party.”
“Line” offers hints of character development, mainly as it shows Christine’s general aversion to people – an odd attitude for someone whose job relies on intense personal interaction. It also finally brings us the relationship with David that was inevitable from minute one.
Other than that, the episode seems mediocre. I’m not sure I care about these character developments, and all the time we spend with Christine’s mopey clients gets tedious. “Line” expands the series somewhat but still doesn’t make it terribly involving.
Insurance: “Christine's secret identity is threatened by a client's death.”
The plot point mentioned above manages to create minor intrigue, as it puts Christine in a sticky position. That’s not enough to make “Insurance” much more interesting than its predecessors, though.
The series seems to have a “lather, rinse, repeat” vibe where we go from Christine’s law career to her prostitution efforts in the same sluggish manner that never really draws in the viewer. Maybe matters will eventually perk up, but I’m starting to run out of hope.
Boundaries: “Christine and a new client grow increasingly intimate and start to cross the provider/client boundary. Back at the law firm, David is confirmed as managing partner.”
Am I the only one who finds it tough to tell which of Christine’s clients is which? Some of them look so much alike that you need a scorecard to keep track – and even then, I doubt I’ll care. We’re still stuck in a rut with another episode that shows the same old, same old.
Access: “Christine takes precautions against any further intrusions from Jack (James Gilbert), but is soon faced with another problem from an unexpected source.”
The introduction of a private investigator threatens to add intrigue, and maybe the topic will pay dividends eventually. Right now, though, this seems like another episode that doesn’t go much of anywhere. I like that Experience develops some of the side effects of the high-priced call girl world, but it just lacks the dramatic impact it needs.
Provocation: “Intent on revenge, Christine goes on the attack at the law firm.”
On the surface, “Provocation” should heat up the series, as it does push along the negative aspects of Christine’s life in a potentially intriguing manner. However, this seems like too little, too late, as the series’ prior lack of dramatic heft makes it difficult to care about current or future developments. At least “Provocation” offers a push toward a more involving direction – we’ll see if it takes us anywhere.
Blindsided: “Christine's worlds collide and she is forced to find a way to come out on top.”
On one hand, I should probably feel happy that “Blindsided” ramps up the drama that finally started to emerge. On the other hand, the series seems to want to follow a cheap “scorned female” narrative that we’ve seen in many “C”-level thrillers. This doesn’t feel like a terribly organic development, and it stretches credulity.
Available: “After her humiliating experience at the law firm, Christine embraces her career as a GFE provider.”
With “Available”, the series essentially ignores the last few episodes. Well, “ignores” is strong, as it’s not like the show pretends earlier events didn’t occur, but it does move away from the high drama of the prior programs.
Which is probably a good thing. “Available” doesn’t offer the most fascinating story, but it cleanses the palette after the semi-cheap theatrics of recent episodes. Also, “Gary” – the john who pays call girls tens of thousands of dollars to do not much of anything – is oddly interesting.
Fabrication: “Christine goes on the counter-attack, in an attempt to force a settlement with the law firm, while exploring more anonymous ways to service her GFE clients.”
Aaaand – we’re back to Thriller Town! Or at least back to Christine’s “real world”, after her vaguely entertaining trip to Toronto. While a more realistic episode than those that came earlier, it still doesn’t seem especially interesting. At this point, I should want to see how all this drama unfolds, but I really don’t care a whole lot.
Home: “Christine travels home for her parent's 30th wedding anniversary party. They are partially happy to see her.”
12 episodes into the series and “Home” finally delivers some much-needed character delineation. It focuses almost entirely on Christine’s visit with her family, and that factor allows it to become one of the season’s better shows. Too bad we had to wait until the year had so little time left to finally get something of merit.
Separation: “Christine is in complete control.”
That’s not much of a plot synopsis – and “Separation” doesn’t have much of a plot. Almost the entire episode focuses on Christine’s interactions with a client who likes to be humiliated. This seems like a vague and pointless end to a largely vague and pointless season.
Chalk up The Girlfriend Experience as a failed experiment. While I admire its less than traditional approach, I find the end result to be so dull that it doesn’t work. With uncompelling characters and little narrative development, the series goes nowhere.