The Girlfriend Experience (2016) Blu-ray Review

A sophisticated deconstruction of high-end prostitution in this intriguing drama

Loosely inspired by director Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie of the same name, co-creaters Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz have fleshed out The Girlfriend Experience into a full-blown television show for Starz. Soderbergh’s movie was most notable for casting adult film actress Sasha Grey as its lead. This premium cable series expands on the movie’s basic concept into a sophisticated drama that explores the life of a high-class escort and their clients from every angle.

Christine Reade (Riley Keough) is a young woman of contradictions. She leads a secret double life. By day, she’s a second-year law student working as an intern at a prestigious firm. Bright and extremely attractive, there seems to be something still missing from her life. By night, she’s a high-class escort providing an expensive service known as the girlfriend experience (GFEs in their lingo) to wealthy older men.

Using Chelsea as an alias, Christine provides her clients with the emotional connection and close relationship a man would normally receive from their girlfriend. Christine does sleep with them, providing her clients an intimacy beyond mere prostitution. She gets paid to play pretend girlfriend with these older men. As Christine’s secret life as an escort becomes intoxicating, the situation becomes problematic when it begins creeping into her professional life as an intern.

The Girlfriend Experience is a richly textured drama developed with a firm hand by creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. They write and direct every episode, imposing a distinct aesthetic and mood over the entire series. Paul Sparks and Mary Jane Rajskub are in the cast as senior lawyers at Christine’s law firm where she works.

Riley Keough is up to the task in what is a demanding and unique role.

The real enigma is Christine herself. An emotionally detached woman with few friends, she slips easily into the role of playing girlfriend for her clients. We see her awkward first stages as an escort to her time as a successful escort running her own business. This is an intelligent, driven woman impossible to decipher, which makes understanding Christine a tough proposition. The men that hire Christine often become infatuated, repeatedly seeing her on “dates” in extravagant style.

A show like The Girlfriend Experience hinges entirely on its lead actress. Riley Keough is up to the task in what is a demanding and unique role. Christine is not a particularly warm or inviting character for the audience. The law student is coldly calculating and lying is a necessary condition of her existence as an escort. It takes several episodes before most will begin to understand Christine’s inner workings. She’s not really written to be likable, which some will find problematic. Lacking the same emotional needs typically imprinted onto leading female characters, Christine is truly a rare breed of television character.

Originally airing on Starz, one would normally expect a raunchy and outrageously explicit pedigree for The Girlfriend Experience. While Christine does have any number of sexual encounters in her adventures, this is not a wildly risque series pushing the boundaries of today’s mores. Despite semi-nude sex scenes with some regularity, they are muted by a dark aesthetic with minimal lighting. This is serious drama focused on Christine’s internal struggle, between a respectable life and her secret job.

One problem glossed over in The Girlfriend Experience is how Christine manages to hold an internship at a top Chicago law firm while moonlighting as an escort for months on end. Second-year law students barely have time to eat with their work load, much less lead a secret double-life that takes up most nights and weekends. It’s the least realistic aspect of a show that gets everything else right.

It’s hard figuring out The Girlfriend’s Experience’s intended audience. The female-driven series is likely too intelligent for viewers looking for cheap thrills and raunchy drama. At the same time, more sophisticated audiences may very well get turned off by Christine’s world of prostitution, no matter how classy it may appear on the surface.

The Girlfriend Experience is at its most compelling when Christine’s escort work threatens her private life. This season is worth giving a look if you can hang around past the first few episodes. The dark, dry tone may give some viewers pause but it’s a rewarding journey by the finish. Binge watchers may find it more engaging given its highly serialized content.

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Video

Starz/Anchor Bay includes the thirteen episodes of The Girlfriend Experience on two BD-50s. Given the lack of special features, the AVC video encode is given room to breathe free of artifacts. Filmed with the RED Dragon digital camera, the video quality is disappointing for a premium cable production. There is nothing blatantly wrong with its subdued aesthetic. This is simply a step down in picture quality from most new productions in depth and dimension.

Purposely shot with minimal lighting and muted colors, this is restrained Hi-Def video. Exteriors look nice enough with pleasant definition and clarity. The desaturated palette mostly comes into play in darkly lit interiors. Sex scenes are particularly murky with reduced visibility.

The filmmakers have gone with a consistently dark tone for Christine’s world and that limits the impact of this picture quality. The 1080P video framed at 1.78:1 is fairly ordinary in contrast and detail levels. Don’t expect a lot of pop and razor-sharp texture from it.

Audio

The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack may be even more reserved than the video’s somber palette. Don’t let the 7.1 channels fool you, this is a dialogue-driven mix with minimal sound design. Some hints of ambient surround and a laid-back score make for a mellow audio experience. A few scenes have stronger surround cues. The crisp dialogue is heard in perfect fidelity but the sound design is fairly weak.

Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles display in a white font. A 2.0 Spanish Dolby Digital dub is also an option.

Extras

It’s mildly disappointing that a polished series with serious thought behind it receives a grand total of six minutes in EPK special features. Lead actress Riley Keough and the showrunners give short interviews in these pieces likely cut for promotional purposes. The featurettes are fairly informative but limited by their brevity.

An Inside Look At The Girlfriend Experience (02:17 in HD)

What is The Girlfriend Experience? (02:12 in HD)

The Look of The Girlfriend Experience (01:52 in HD)

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