My sister watches Days of Our Lives. I feel like I need to be clear here: she didn’t just start watching Days of Our Lives and she didn’t used to watch Days of Our Lives. No, she has consistently watched Days of Our Lives since high school and she is in her forties now and I don’t believe she’s missed even one single day of the show. Her commitment could be seen as impressive were it not so terrifying.
I used to watch that show, too. I was such a fan while I was in college that I would organize my class schedule so as not to miss a minute of the dastardly goings-on in Salem, which were often far more interesting than the generic chaos happening on campus on a random Thursday. That said, even as a Film major who learned early the concept of willfully suspending disbelief, I had a limit when it came to the patently ridiculous and it was the storyline that centered on Stefano living in the depths of Marlena’s closet and sneaking into her bedroom to open her soul every night that finally pushed me over the proverbial ledge. I’d already accepted demonic possessions and new actors appearing as longstanding characters out of nowhere and pregnancy scares and swamp girls turning into princesses; I had to draw the fucking line somewhere.
The show is moronic, I told my sister over the phone as gently as I could. I’m breaking up with it and, if you have any dignity, you will cut it out of your life as well.
I was, after all, only trying to be supportive of a family member.
Leigh did not break up with Marlena or John or Patch or Sammy. She stuck with them and I was able to make a tremendous amount of fun of her for years and years about the bullshit programming she embraced as entertainment. Me? I got into different shows like Lost and Breaking Bad and The Wire and Dexter – you know, quality programming. I would talk about those shows with friends and acquaintances and new men I met at bars. (Nothing makes a man more excited than a girl in a tank top talking about Dexter. Actually, if my cleavage could project Caddyshack on a nearby wall, that might beat the Dexter thing, but I’ve yet to figure out the technology behind that little skill.) But privately? Well, that was a different story because I also found myself falling into a ditch where only reality shows played on a loop and, even though I probably could have crawled out of that ditch without too much trouble, I chose to stay there and I installed a DVR. I began watching The Real Housewives of Fucking Everywhere and Survivor and Vanderpump Rules and one season of America’s Next Top Model, though I completely blame a friend for pulling me into that one. I tuned in to the first few seasons of American Idol – and I even voted once, which is on my Top 10 list of Biggest Personal Humiliations. (It ranks higher than the time my left boob popped out of my bikini top on a date and sat there bobbing on the surface of the water for at least five minutes before I realized what was happening.) And I became (oh God, the shame) a fan of Big Brother and watched every episode of that show – and lest you not realize how humungous (and tragic) a revelation I am making here, please know that show airs three times a week during the summer.
Despite all of this stealth viewing, I was still able to shake my head at my sister for watching her absurd soap, or at least I was until the night she stayed over and I let her in on my Big Brother secret. She sat down to watch and every ounce of respect she might have had for me drained out of her pores over the course of that primetime hour. See, I had to explain what was going on and it was right when a competition started (where the winning team’s prize would be that they’d get to eat for the week) that my sister just began laughing at me – hard – for watching such horrible television and my upper hand was obliterated forever.
I think part of what she found so bizarre (and stupid) was the show’s lingo. I found myself explaining terms like HOH and Diary Room and Nomination Ceremony and Slop. I had to say things like, “Yes, Leigh, the yard is made out of turf.” I had to tell her that people would scheme and lie and vie to wear the hunk of fake gold that is the Veto Medallion. And I almost had to go into hiding due to pure and unadulterated shame because it turns out the more you explain the details of terrible shows, the more of a total idiot you sound like.
The Girlfriend Experience, a new show that airs on Starz, is the farthest thing from a terrible show. Still, I have chosen not to tell my sister about binge-watching the entire first season in less than a day. A lot of years ago, she informed me that she no longer has any desire to watch television shows or movies that are “disturbing,” a declaration that stunned me even more than when she announced that she was pregnant with her first child and then swore during her ninth month that there was definitely only one baby in there despite the fact that she had started to look like a cruise ship when she turned sideways. How could one come to such a decision? I mean, to consciously make the choice to turn away from entertainment that could be considered disturbing would probably knock 98% of my typical TV and movie viewing out in one quick swoosh! Everything I watch is somewhat disturbing! The concept of anarchists creating a financial apocalypse on Mr. Robot was disturbing. The indisputable fact that Lisa Rinna lost her entire mind on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills this last season for no good reason at all is also very disturbing. Even looking at the kids who are growing up on Modern Family is somewhat disturbing because there’s just something fucking weird and truly disquieting about witnessing child actors morph gawkily into adolescence, even if they stay somewhat cute. Maybe it’s just me who feels this way, but watching the actors who play Luke and Lily age is like watching a Muppet Baby get shoved inside of a blender that’s then set to frappe. It just feels wrong.
You really should watch Lost, I told my sister while the show was still in its first season. I have not enjoyed a series this much in decades. Trust me.
I heard it’s scary, she’d mumble back – and I would hang up the phone and then mumble my own questions to the heavens: Is it possible one of us was adopted? We can’t really be related, can we? Because after you cut “disturbing” and “scary” from my potential list of what I might watch, I’m pretty sure I’d be left with only episodes of Full House, a series I actually find far more profoundly disturbing than that scene in Requiem for a Dream when the female protagonist gets gangbanged to earn money for more heroin. Listen: I’m not insane. I know that the degradation caused by a rampant drug addiction is actually way worse than Full House could even hope to be, but there has always been something about a loud laugh-track rattling off when nothing is all that funny coupled with weirdly precocious children and toddlers who rock a catchphrase that makes me pray hard for humanity’s future.
I did not a bit of praying while watching The Girlfriend Experience, but I did do an awful lot of reflecting and even a bit of rewinding so I could take a closer look at a shot or so I could meander over to my television screen to read a text a character sent because it turns out I definitely need glasses and that little hard-to-see-from-far-away ailment hasn’t just vanished like I expected it would. The show is a half-hour drama – which is a rare thing and actually an awesome thing because a viewer can commit to the series quickly without feeling too cornered in by the length of each looming episode. It’s billed as having been “suggested by” the movie of the same name, a movie I’ve never seen. All I knew about the film version was that it was directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred Sasha Grey in a non-porn role. I heard it was decent and stark and that it interestingly and subtly commented on the financial crisis that was pummeling America at the time of its release, but I didn’t have a huge desire at the time to see it. Let’s just say I was already somewhat familiar with Sasha Grey’s range and I didn’t feel the need to see any more.
Now that I’ve watched the entire season of the television show that appears to be a distant but incestuous cousin of the film, I’m sort of interested in seeing the movie to see if I can locate any interesting parallels – and I suppose I’ll get to that eventually. For now, though, I want to implore those of you who have not watched the show to get on it right away, though you need to accept one thing before wading on in: you will either love this series or you will fucking hate it. I have yet to find a fellow viewer who has no reaction or just isn’t sure how this show makes him feel and it has been my experience that just as many people seem to despise the show as revere it. Personally, the only reason I even watched it in the first place was because I read a review in New York magazine that declared it one of the finest new shows around and I was just curious enough to check out the trailer for the series. It was that trailer that hooked me. It also would be that same trailer that might cause my sister to cancel her cable service altogether.
Watch it. You’ll see a gorgeous Riley Keough playing Christine. She’s a law student and an intern by day and a high-end escort by night. Her clients look old, father-like. The worlds she glides between are both challenging and soul-demolishing. Danger lurks around every single corner and all of those corners are made of steel or glass or chrome and it’s quite possible that the absence of both light and color in her universe has caused a starvation of reason. She makes bold choices – and many of them are entirely questionable. She fights with men and stalks down hallways where we can see her reflection in a mirrored wall far more vividly than we can see the real person. There’s a palpable feeling of dread accompanying the beautifully spare visuals and the whole thing feels modern and compelling, but what the trailer does not reveal is just how powerful some of these short episodes will be and how they have continued to spin in my mind backwards long after the end credits have rolled.
I don’t want to reveal too much because I was one of those people who watched every episode, but I know many who are just watching one episode per week as Starz airs the next one in the sequence. All I can therefore say so I don’t spoil what’s coming is that Christine becomes harder to figure out as the episodes progress – and there’s something both intriguing and infuriating about that. I think I have this odd (and probably incredibly dysfunctional) attraction to very complicated individuals and that attraction includes fictional characters. While I certainly understand why some viewers feel cheated by not being fed just a bit more information about Christine and her motivations, I actually appreciate the vagueness, at least for now. I don’t know if I’ll be amenable to finishing up the next season without knowing for sure if there’s a chance Christine sent that email herself or whether or not she’s a bonafide sociopath, but I can tell you this: it’s sort of decided for us that she is not a sociopath because, as her sister explains, sociopaths do not wonder if they in fact are sociopaths. I’m here to tell you such a thing is not entirely true.
There’s a lot of sex in The Girlfriend Experience and there should be since it’s a show about prostitution and consumption. Much of the sex is shot in extreme close-up and Christine is often on top, an expression on her face that is often hard to read. Is she enjoying the sex for which she’s being paid? Are her moans and hair-tossing just for show the way mine used to be before I started sleeping with guys who were better in bed? Does she mean even a single thing she says to her clients, several of whom get emotionally attached to her in a way that appears to make her terribly uncomfortable? Was that an extra-long blink she gave after seeing Ryan and might it have meant that he challenged her more than anybody else has and she was maybe genuinely drawn to him? What about that laugh that seemed so organic and impulsive while she was on the boat with Michael? Was that real? Is any of the pain or the happiness we catch glimpses of as they bounce off of glass and mirrored surfaces to be taken at surface value?
I’m choosing to see it as pervesersely funny that so many of the questions I allow to spiral through my own mind during the start of a relationship (What does this mean? Did that expression on his face just reveal something profound? Why am I always on top?) are incredibly similar to the questions I had when I watched The Girlfriend Experience. The entire show – especially the last episode of the season, which will forever go on my list of The Most Fucked Up Things I’ve Ever Seen on Television – provided many questions and yielded very few answers and I think you have to just be someone who is drawn to ambiguity to appreciate a program where it oddly feels like you know the protagonist less and less as the series progresses. I’ve read the criticism leveled against the show and almost all of it centers around the way Christine’s intentions are shrouded from the viewers. There’s something very accurate about such a charge; Christine herself grows more opaque even as her surroundings and her once-protected secrets become more transparent. Not having what sometimes feels like necessary character information is unsettling – disturbing almost – but I think there can be a real merit in embracing disturbing entertainment, as long as it’s not disturbing just for effect. It’s my opinion (regardless of lines in the show like “I want to ride your face,” which I’m totally planning to use in a sentence today) that this series isn’t going for shock just for shtick’s sake. Instead, this show feels rather complex. It’s a series that weaves a complicated narrative like it’s a scratchy patchwork blanket – and then it tosses in brief and unexpected chills and tremors that either make you want to tuck the itchy thing under your chin or toss that blanket off of you forever and just buy a fucking nylon sleeping bag instead.
After watching so much generic programming for so long, I really appreciate the internal debate this new show has created in my mind and the way I still contemplate what I have seen long after the television has been turned off for the night. I’ve happily embraced all I don’t yet know about these characters and their twisted dynamics and I really hope there will be a second season because, hell, I finished the first season weeks ago and I’m still left with so many unresolved questions. Luckily, I’ve also managed to come to one very clear-cut conclusion: I would have totally slept with her boss, too.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.