The Bleak World of The Girlfriend Experience

The Starz show returns for a second season, but its self-serving antiheroes are colder than ever.

Anna (Louisa Krause) and Erica (Anna Friel) in Starz's 'The Girlfriend Experience'

The universe of The Girlfriend Experience, which returns for a second season on Starz Sunday night, is so sterile you could perform surgery in it. For a show so preoccupied with sex and power—two intrinsically messy subjects—it takes place for the most part in disturbingly pristine environments. A Republican fundraiser, Erica (Anna Friel), lives in a vast townhouse more devoid of clutter and personal items than an upscale furniture catalog. A high-class sex worker, Anna (Louisa Krause), entertains clients in a glass-walled apartment whose sole item of furniture is a vast white sectional she never once sits on.

The lack of set decoration isn’t about budgetary issues—The Girlfriend Experience is nothing if not deliberate. Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s first season of the show, which debuted last April, spun off Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie of the same name into a bleak examination of a law student, Christine (Riley Keough), who was introduced to a new career as a high-end escort. (The “girlfriend experience” of the title refers to the service provided for wealthy men who desire a relationship precisely dictated on their terms.) Anchored by Keough’s enigmatic and forceful performance, the first season was a fascinating but chilly exploration of a character rejecting every preconception of how women are supposed to feel and behave.

Season 2 reboots the show altogether, introducing two entirely different narratives. Seimetz and Kerrigan have gone in opposite directions, after apparently wanting to pursue different themes. Kerrigan’s half closely hews to the model of Season 1, delving into a relationship between Friel’s Erica, a Washington insider, and Krause’s Anna, whom Erica hires to provide dirt on one of Anna’s less charming customers. Seimetz’s story focuses on Bria (Carmen Ejogo), a former escort who ends up in witness protection in New Mexico after agreeing to testify against her boyfriend, a drug dealer. It’s this storyline that feels like the most dramatic reinvention, with Seimetz abandoning the generic marble lobbies and stark, metallic minimalism of Season 1 to follow a character who’s similarly forced out of her comfort zone.

For fans of the first season, which was critically acclaimed if not exactly a ratings buster, it’s intriguing to see the two creators diverge, and to intuit which was responsible for the most absorbing parts of Christine’s story. But it’s also hard not to wish they’d kept balancing each other out. Kerrigan’s half of the show, without Seimetz’s attention to character work, is an icy fantasia of unfettered capitalism, in which every relationship—professional or personal—involves someone abusing their power. Seimetz’s half, without Kerrigan’s sense of structure, yo-yos between different moods and scenarios, but it also takes a more thoughtful and nuanced look at the dynamics of sex as currency.

Friel, maybe the biggest name in the show, is outstanding as Erica, a fundraiser for a conservative super PAC intent on bringing the biggest donors into her orbit. As the writer and director, Kerrigan creates a tense universe that’s ominous from the very beginning, with a low-level hum underlying virtually every moment. In the first scene Anna entertains a Republican operative who’s a frightening bully, spewing profanities at her and grabbing her neck with force. On a whim, she records his phone conversation and leaks the tape to a contact working for Erica. When Erica asks why she’s betraying her client, Anna replies, “Because he’s a misogynist and a fucking pig. He deserves whatever he gets.”

Kerrigan’s Washington, filmed largely in Toronto, looks nothing like the U.S. capital, but what it lacks in geographic authenticity it makes up for with a poisonous air of House of Cards–style ambition. Every interaction demands a winner and a loser; every small-stakes conversation becomes a tussle for supremacy. But the blankness Kerrigan imposes on his sets, beyond being aesthetically absurd (there’s not so much as a book, a magazine, a dirty glass, or a discarded set of keys in sight), translates to his characters. Friel magnificently communicates Erica’s fluctuating sense of status, but she can’t communicate motivations that don’t exist. Like Jessica Chastain’s lobbyist protagonist in the movie Miss Sloane, Erica is a stereotype of grasping D.C. nefariousness come to life.

Even worse is that Kerrigan’s interpretation of working women comes to seem troublingly reductive. When they’re not shredding men with their six-inch stilettos, they’re laying in vodka-addled messes on the floor, or trapping brand-new partners with deceitfully planned pregnancies. If it weren’t for the fact that the men in The Girlfriend Experience are even more repulsive, the nastiness of its characters could come across as misogynist. As it is, it’s equal-opportunity awfulnessthe graphic scenes of sexual jockeying are intercut with moments where boorish billionaires remind themselves that they can do more good with their money than any government.

Seimetz’s half of the story is looser, more inventive, and yet sometimes more perplexing to boot. Bria is the partner of Donald Fairchild, a gangster and drug dealer. In her first scene, Bria’s taken into witness protection with her ex’s truculent 13-year-old daughter, Kayla (Morgana Davies). Fairchild is apparently American, but both Bria and her stepdaughter speak with British accents, a fact that’s never explained. (Their official, Fed-approved backstory is that they’re from Toronto.) Bria was working as an escort until she met Fairchild; the biggest tragedy in her new life involves trading her immaculate outfits for sweatpants and patterned lilac T-shirts from the Kohl’s bargain bin.

If Kerrigan’s half of the show is defined by precision, Seimetz’s part takes pleasure in mussing everything up. Ejogo’s Bria, shoehorned unexpectedly into the role of a poverty-stricken Southwestern single mother, can’t make herself fit it. Policed all hours of the day by an overbearing U.S. Marshal (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe), she yearns to return to the only kind of freedom she knows—escort work—and strikes up a relationship with an oddball motivational coach (the actor and director Harmony Korine). Seimetz plays up the strangeness of the New Mexico landscape within the context of the series, using its warmth and wildness to contrast with Kerrigan’s bleak cityscapes. She seems to be trying to communicate the restrictiveness of the boxes women are so often put in, but Bria’s madcap story ultimately lacks a cohesive arc to pull it together.

What’s gratifying about this spotty and sometimes surreal Season 2 is that it’s clear the show’s creators want to push the boundaries of what they can do. Kerrigan delves deeper into exploring sex and money as different sides of desire—the accumulation of capital, whether financial or personal, and the fluctuations of demand. Seimetz takes a more explicit examination of why women pursue sex work, what it means to them, and the toll it can ultimately take. It’s enough, at least, to be optimistic about what a third season could try to achieve.