A melting pot of creative influences, The Girlfriend Experience is based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name and was created for Starz by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, two distinctive filmmakers who each wrote and directed half the first season’s episodes. Despite this division of labor and sensibility, the first season was tonally consistent and defined by an allegiance to the film’s chilly formalism, which emphasized sex as a corruptible extension of politics. This style meshes well with Kerrigan’s own analytical interests in bodies and buildings, and Seimetz’s more intuitive framing was felt in the delicate close-ups of faces, which reveled in the emotions that the characters couldn’t quite bring themselves to suppress.
Season two doubles down on the particularities of each filmmaker’s sensibilities, allowing Kerrigan and Seimetz to each tell their own separate stories. Kerrigan’s half of the season is centered on Erica Myles (Anna Friel), a financial director of a super PAC supporting a Republican senator’s bid for reelection. Erica spends her time threatening and flattering the men behind the scenes who run our country, whose dollars are dependent on their “voices being heard,” which is a euphemism for dictating deregulatory policy and appointing members to special senate committees. Early in the season, Erica blackmails a managing director of a right-wing nonprofit, Mark Novak (Michael Cram), by recruiting an escort, Anna Garner (Louisa Krause), as a spy. But soon Erica hires Anna for herself, and the two engage in an affair that blurs the lines between professionalism and passion and status and emotion.
Titled “Erica and Anna,” Kerrigan’s thread is consistent with the austere sex-and-architecture aesthetic of The Girlfriend Experience’s first season, pushing the concept to its breaking point. The rarefied hotels, apartments, and offices of Erica and Anna’s world are almost laughably impersonal. Throughout these episodes, no shred of individual paraphernalia is visible, as Erica doesn’t even have pillows on her bed. Walls are pristinely bare, boasting tasteful autumnal colors, which match those of various sinister corridors, and translucent glass offices suggest white-collar cages. The dialogue is delivered in a robotic timbre that connotes intensely and purposefully withheld humanity. An escort might compliment a john’s cock in the same obliging fashion that she’d reserve for any other business transaction. Kerrigan isn’t without a sense of humor. “Erica and Anna” parodies the inhumanity of capitalism, which reduces everyone to a functional pulley in service of someone else’s whims.
Kerrigan also pushes the boundaries of sex as an expression of power. One can chart people’s status in “Erica and Anna” by the sort of head they give and receive. Men hump Anna’s mouth, regarding her as a human vacuum cleaner, and Kerrigan often lingers on her face, detailing the efforts required of Anna to hold her resentment and repulsion in check. In more erotic scenes, Erica and Anna ravage one another, which Kerrigan films with the air of a man who’s earning his doctorate in, say, “Carnality in the Modern Media,” rhyming the women’s sculptural bodies with the creepy perfection of their habitats.
Yet Friel and Krause play these sequences with un-ironic emotionalism, deepening the detached tableaux with heartbreaking sincerity. A few vignettes allow for the sentimental joys that can arise from capitalism, while another moment—in which Anna blows a guy while he films her on an iPhone—ambiguously conjures the arousal of self-exploitation. Anna turns herself into a willing subjugate, mirroring the ways in which people merge their private and public lives via social media.
Dehumanization, as reflected by America’s growing obsessions with neo-conservatism and self-surveillance, is the subject of “Erica and Anna.” The Girlfriend Experience’s first season essentially concerned the same theme, but Riley Keough’s charisma in the lead role added a dash of superstar glamour that complicated the preaching, and one misses Seimetz’s sensibility in “Erica and Anna,” which might’ve softened Kerrigan’s merciless sense of reduction.
This suspicion is confirmed by Seimetz’s portion of season two, “Bria,” which follows an escort, Bria (Carmen Ejogo), as she hides out in New Mexico from her ex, who’s committed crimes that are only gradually revealed. Adjusting to witness relocation with her adopted 13-year-old daughter, Kayla (Morgana Davies), whom she can barely stand, Bria must reacquaint herself with the middle-class life from which she used sex and cultural education to escape.
Seimetz’s aesthetic offers a decisive break from the self-conscious parlor games that Soderbergh and Kerrigan play, and the change of pace and tone is freeing. There’s a sense that Soderbergh and Kerrigan, men who’re detailing male exploitation of women, are hemmed in by gender guilt. Soderbergh and Kerrigan castigate rich men for their piggishness, indicting a system that nurtures and encourages such behavior, but they see their female characters as exhibits in a thesis rather than as human beings.
Seimetz doesn’t so easily pin her protagonist down, and she structures her half of the season around a puckish joke: A beautiful woman is new in a small town, and though she once sold herself to men at unapproachable prices, now she can’t get laid. Seimetz rhymes Bria’s sexual frustration with the entrapment that she feels as a federal witness, and the character’s sense of having utterly no exit is poignant and frightening. This entrapment, however, is visualized by the sort of counterpoint that doesn’t occur to the more literal-minded Kerrigan: openness. Seimetz’s frames are vast and loose, reveling in landscapes and in intimately nuanced close-ups of faces.
The sex scenes in “Bria,” when they arrive, aren’t nearly as explicit as those in “Erica and Anna,” as Seimetz relies on symbols and innuendo to exacerbate the idea that carnality drives all power negotiations. When Bria attempts to seduce Ian (Tunde Adebimpe), the U.S. Marshal overseeing her transition, sticking one of his fingers in her mouth and sucking it like a phallus, the action feels naughty—naughtier than the explicit simulations of “Erica and Anna.” When Bria walks around casually and inappropriately in expensive black lingerie, Seimetz and Ejogo allow the audience to enjoy the sensual charge of her body. Seimetz doesn’t box scenes into thematic corners, allowing her behavioral intuition to create ripples of longing, humor, tenderness, and violence. And she often encapsulates the strangeness of Bria’s cultural situation with sly punchlines, such as the sight of a woman dressed to the nines who can’t pay for a $13 cocktail.
Nurturing our complicity with Bria—a player who’s being played, who brushes the suffering Kayla off with galling insensitivity—is Paul (Harmony Korine), who’s presented as a parody of a passive-aggressive pig who’s learned how to feign wokeness. Ejogo, a figure of misplaced elegance, and Korine, a boutique hipster unexpectedly playing a billionaire, make for an inspired couple. Korine delivers Paul’s veiled insults with a disturbing whisper that’s intensified by his cuckoo timing. Like Erica and Anna, Bria and Paul have also been assembled so as to land a variety of points about gender, capitalism, desperation, and exploitation, but Seimetz’s too drunk on performance and texture to underline what’s already apparent from her spry, lucid direction.
Altogether, the second season of The Girlfriend Experience is knottier and more surprising, though somewhat less satisfying, than the first. But this is the sort of experimentation and inconsistency that push television beyond the dictates of delivering narrative by the yard. Like Joe Swanberg’s Easy and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, The Girlfriend Experience approaches television less as a serialized novel than as a baroque concept album, allowing for riffs that celebrate harmony as well as disharmony.