As many other critics have already pointed out, there are some problems with peak TV. New shows that are well-written and fascinating may not always have the binge-worthiness to keep up with the kinds of series that keep audiences glued to their screens. I didn’t expect The Girlfriend Experience to have this problem. Created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, with Steven Soderbergh as Executive Producer (he also wrote and directed the 2009 film that inspired the show), the series follows a law student who starts working in the escort business. I assumed there’d be plenty of sex, drama and feminist quandaries to hook me after the first episode.
But that’s not exactly what happened. Three episodes in, and it’s unclear precisely where the show is going, and how we’re supposed to feel about the characters at the center of the story. Christine Read (played by Riley Keough) is somewhat bland as the law student, working diligently at school and a new internship when she decides to add more to her plate, and venture into the world of high-class escorts. At first it appears that she’s friends with Kate Lyn Sheil’s Avery—who looks every bit the part—a pale, sexy, Mrs. Mia Wallace haircut kinda gal, seemingly content with her part-time gig. But their friendship gets complicated as soon as Christine (AKA Chelsea) joins her, and the two become co-workers of sorts, represented by the same woman, Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo). We meet her in episode two, “A Friend,” and it’s not clear whether she’s to be trusted or not.
And this is where things get curiouser and curiouser on The Girlfriend Experience. Instead of asking us to be shocked, thrilled or titillated by the subject matter (though all such things are possible), the series invites us to question each character as they are presented, slowly and with great patience. Kerrigan and Seimetz (who co-wrote each episode) don’t seem especially concerned with making an explosive series that will immediately be deemed must-watch TV—The Girlfriend Experience is a slow burn. It’s so slow at times, you’re not sure if you’re bored—the last thing you’d expect to be, given the subject matter. Midway through the second episode, sometime after Christine completes her first photo shoot for her new line of work, I admit I wondered if I was missing something. But little hints had been dropped in various scenes—some at Christine’s internship, where an unhappy client is shaking things up, and some in her personal life, where she leaves one seemingly complex roommate situation, only to create another—and by the end of episode three, “Retention,” it’s clear that the series is building up to some potentially big things.
This isn’t a show where you immediately fall in love with the characters, or even a single character, because this isn’t a show that tells you right away—definitively—who these characters are, or what motivates them. There lingers in each scene a sense that we will come to know them over time, but that we should not become too comfortable with taking any one position. And that kind of mysterious unfolding of characterization is thrilling, but only if you don’t mind working (and waiting) a bit for your thrills. In this way, The Girlfriend Experience deviates from some of the tropes that have come to define the Golden Age. It’s hard to get obsessed with a new show, if you’re not quite sure what you’re witnessing.
Perhaps the best part about “Retention” is the suggestion that the protagonist—who’s cool demeanor is the perfect reflection of the sterile, gorgeous look of the series—is starting to unravel, just a bit. It’s the small things—she’s late to a class and unprepared for a test; she’s late to work; she’s unprepared for an upcoming visit (from who, we don’t know yet) and the slightest outburst in a crowded restaurant tells us that it is about to go down. Not knowing what that “it” is, or how it will unfold on this strange series is reason enough to keep tuning in. The fact that, while all of this is unfolding, I don’t know who exactly to route for, who to trust or how I’m supposed to feel about this particular world of men, money, women and power makes The Girlfriend Experience a different brand of must-watch TV—one that could hopefully usher in another style of storytelling to compliment the binge-y approach we’ve all grown so comfortable with in recent years.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.