The final episode of The Girlfriend Experience’s first season has a scene that deftly summarizes everything that’s great about the series. In it, our protagonist, a high-dollar escort named Christine (Riley Keough) plays out a complicated cuckolding scenario with her client, using a second man she’s hired for the occasion. And though there are multiple, season-long story strands to be tied up – bits of industrial espionage, blackmail, a lingering question of who’s responsible for a leaked sex tape – the show’s masterminds, independent filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, don’t answer any of them. Instead, they choose to stick with this scene, letting play out in something like real time, its 15-minute duration taking up more than half the episode’s 28-minute running time. That’s bold.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the show’s pedigree. The Girlfriend Experience is “suggested by” the 2009 film directed by Steven Soderbergh; he serves as executive producer on the Starz series, one of the projects he’s busied himself with since his self-imposed (and short-lived) retirement from feature film directing in 2013. Another is the Cinemax series The Knick, which he directed in its entirety; by lucky chance, the second season of that series hits DVD and Blu-ray on the same day as Girlfriend Experience’s first, giving fans the Soderbergh (and Soderbergh-inspired) fixes they’ve been missing at the cinema. And both shows tell us much about what the movies have lost in the filmmaker’s absence – and what television has gained.
Early in its run, The Knick looked like yet another tribute to the white male antihero (to such a degree that The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum initially wrote off the show, and admirably reassessed it), here personified by Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the brilliant yet troubled chief surgeon at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet throughout its two seasons, Soderbergh and series creator/writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (and fellow writer Steven Katz) have thwarted that lionization. He’s a liar and an addict, a user and an abuser, and his work in the operating theater is often less about medicine than performance – a thread that continues through the season finale, where he manically comes on, to operate on himself, like some kind of carnival barker. “Please direct your attention to the center of the ring,” he promises, “where I will amaze you with a feat so extraordinary, it has never been seen by you or anyone else in the history of mankind.” When it starts to go awry, he insists, “the show must go on,” refusing to accept help, insisting on relying solely upon his own genius. He would rather risk death than ask for assistance, and in its own way, The Knick becomes a quiet indictment of our current antihero obsession.
That’s not the only way in which The Knick parts from its immediate contemporaries. It’s one of the few shows, even among the “Golden Age” prestige dramas, to really take advantage of the season rather than the episode as a storytelling unit. (The Wire is another.) Thanks to that eye on the long game, The Knick has patience, and a contemplative, calm tone that lets it periodically sock you in the gut; giant turns appear casually, on the edge of the frame, as they often do in life. That’s part and parcel of Soderbergh’s style, and points towards another divergence; television has always been considered primarily a writer’s medium, especially in this particular “Golden Age,” where the showrunners are celebrities and the directors, though skilled, are usually hired hands working in a house style. But (perhaps thanks to the superstar filmmaker at its helm, and in that position for every episode) The Knick is as much about directing as writing. So there’s an unpredictablilty to the filmmaking, in its unexpected flourishes: a left-field prologue, a strange angle, a shock edit, an audio drop-out, a bit of surprise slow-motion, a harrowing point-of-view shot.
Most striking of all is how he grafts a decidedly contemporary style on this period story – noticeably (sometimes jarringly) hand-held camerawork, daring editing, and a pulsing, electronic score by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez. This may be a “period piece,” but it comes with none of the stuffiness that phrase may suggest – and allows Soderbergh to continue in the boldly experimental vein of his smaller films: playing with color palates, with composition, and with lighting (particularly, how much he can get away with keeping in the dark).
But this style makes sense, in terms of what the show is accomplishing on a macro level. It’s filled with (sad!) parallels to our modern moment – please enjoy the anti-immigration judge who sneeringly promises to “let real Americans know exactly who you are.” Yet there are early stirrings of movements, in the actions and arcs of characters like proto-feminist nurse Lucy (men have “all disappointed me, and betrayed me, and thrown me away… Why do we let them?”) and gifted black doctor Dr. Algernon Edwards, who tells Thackery, in what could be the show’s mission statement, “It’s the future. You think it’s here too early, and I think it’s here too late.” In a fascinating way, in this season in particular, The Knick becomes a kind of pre-history of our world, of everything from medicine to feminism to porn, seen through a (literally) contemporary lens; add in the style and the music, and they’re dramatizing the past in not just the present, but future tense.
And though The Knick is about how things used to work (not just in medicine, but in society), it’s a logical extension of Soderbergh’s career-long interest in process: he’s as fascinated in the logistics of a turn-of-the-century operating room, or how a hospital is built (especially the graft and kickbacks), as he was in the procedures of the drug war, or robbing a casino, or leading a revolution. The Girlfriend Experience is also fascinated with the (so to speak) ins and outs of the business at its center – the infrastructure, the percentages, the choice to work with an arranger or represent yourself, marketing strategies, off-shore tax shelter options, etc.
There are also some fascinating, and perhaps coincidental, mirrors between these shows (particularly transactional nature of Lucy and Henry’s relationship in the back half of The Knick’s second season), but it’s important to give credit where due: Soderbergh did not play the same kind of hands-on role on Girlfriend, which is written and directed, in rotation, by Kerrigan and Seimetz. And per the credits, it is merely “suggested by” Soderbergh’s 2009 film, though its protagonist shares her name and profession; in some ways, it’s almost like an origin story (or, to borrow another bit of superhero language, a “reboot,” keeping the broad strokes but altering the particulars).
Yet the stylistic overlaps are clear; this is a show set in impeccably furnished and lit hotel rooms, shiny offices bedecked in glass. The frames are crisply composed, and the camera movements are deliberate. And Kerrigan and Seimetz’s scripts invite you to fill in the blanks; they leave out scenes whenever they can, while getting into those that remain as late as possible, and out of them as quickly. And they carry over from the movie a specific quietness, coldness, and distance from the characterizations and situation – at least initially. (“You make me really happy,” she tells one client, with a flatness to her voice that feels almost like a parody of human emotion; he replies, just as blankly, “I feel very close to you.”)
This is perhaps the key to the show, and to the brilliant performance by Riley Keough at its center– it acknowledges and dramatizes her potent and driving sexuality, without “explaining” or judging it. (She says it herself, late in the season: “As a woman, it’s tough to be seen as a sexual person and a professional.”) The latter element gets particularly tricky as we get deeper into the series, as her double life begins to fall apart, and we’re rarely certain how much of this is a long con, or improvised reaction, or honest-to-God meltdown. There are open questions that are, startlingly, left open, without seeming to withhold information, per se. The show puts us in her head – thanks to the experiential sound design, the blurred focus, the point-of-view shots – without actually letting us in, which is some trick. Is she self-destructive or practical? Or both?
Refreshingly, in this world of House of Cards to-camera asides and True Detective’s thematic verbosity, The Knick and The Girlfriend Experience both steadfastly refuse to take you by the hand and lead you through either their narratives or their morality. They’re playing with expectations and formalities – I mean, The Girlfriend Experience is a half-hour drama, for goodness’ sake – and they’re not concerned with pleasing their (presumably small) audiences. In fact, their low profiles seem to let them take those risks; to keep pressure in check, Soderbergh reportedly chose to place The Knick on Cinemax, and Girlfriend Experience runs on Starz. A name of Soderbergh’s magnitude could’ve probably placed these shows on higher visibility outlets like HBO or even (toned down, of course) AMC. Instead, they are to those networks’ series as indie films are to the mainstream. They’re television series that look, talk, and act like independent cinema. And that’s good news for fans of both.