Steven Soderbergh typically knows what he’s doing, so we want to believe in the upcoming The Girlfriend Experience TV series on Starz.
But we’re worried. The series is loosely based on Soderbergh’s 2009The Girlfriend Experience, a film about a very successful high-class escort in New York City who is thrown off her game. It was an experiment that succeeded because of certain very specific conditions. One was Sasha Grey, an untested dramatic actress but a woman who knows a thing or two about the sex work industry (though porn and escorting, of course, are two very different things). The other was the way the story was framed: This movie wasn’t positioned as a salacious behind-the-scenes look into the rich but still seedy underworld of the sex trade. It was a view of the 2008 financial crisis and upcoming election through the eyes of a high-end escort. And it worked — because it was much more about money than sex.
Grey’s character Christine (or Chelsea, her working name) was a veteran to the business, with no moral or ethical qualms about what she was doing. While one client criticized her for having a “flat affect,” that same walled-off self-possession allowed her to create a highly professional, thriving business and maintain (well, for a little while) a committed romantic relationship without any secrets. Chelsea’s character arc had nothing little to do with any internal conflict about being a prostitute. Rather, the trickle-down-effects of the economic crisis allowed her to identify with her regular clients in a way she apparently hadn’t before. Some, who were struggling, opened up to her about their financial anxieties and lamented that she might be a casualty of their new austerity measures. Others gave her financial advice, which she appeared to take seriously.
Chelsea’s downward spiral only began after a realization that a person, even if they truly are the best at what they do, can only stay on top for so long in a disrupted market. An unwise decision to invest emotionally in a relationship that was strictly business was more driven by business than emotions.That’s what made the story so compelling, and it was helped along tremendously by Grey's unique performance; a masterclass in subtlety. (It was also a reminder that porn actors are actors just like any others!)
Based on the series trailer and what has been revealed about the show, Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience will take a much more conventional approach: A young law student (Riley Keough) is lured into the high-end escort business by a classmate, and is quickly taken with the luxuries it offers her. In one trailer scene, we see two girls gleefully order “the most expensive” bottles of wine and champagne in a high-end hotel room. That’s a stark contrast to a scene in which Chelsea haggles with a store clerk for his cheapest pre-paid cellphone. Keough appears to have taken a cue from Grey’s dialogue delivery, but it seems their characters' backstories and familiarity with the business will be very different. The location has also changed: The movie was set in New York but the TV series takes place in Chicago.
Soderbergh is the executive producer, but the series is written and directed by the excellent Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, The Killing) and Lodge Kerrigan, who has directed episodes of top shows like Homeland and The Americans. Both are capable and talented, but right now The Girlfriend Experience looks like another version of Secret Diaries of a Call Girl rather than a truly fresh and exciting drama. But maybe we will be pleasantly surprised.
The Girlfriend Experience will debut on Starz in 2016.