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The price of 'The Girlfriend Experience' might be too high; it taxes one's dignity

The price of 'The Girlfriend Experience' might be too high; it taxes one's dignity
Riley Keough in "The Girlfriend Experience" on Starz. (Starz)

There are many reasons that prostitution should be legalized in this country, including and especially to ensure the health and safety of sex workers. But certainly the end of absurdly fetishized story lines about high-end call girls like the one in Starz's new half-hour drama "The Girlfriend Experience" would be an added benefit.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like the world's second oldest profession is sexing up stories with the first, either as random backdrop action on pretty much every cable drama ever or as a wink-wink metaphor for consumerism, sexual liberation, emotional exploration or, in the case of Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film from which the series is adapted, economic anxiety.

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But where the film at least acknowledged the irony of Wall Street alphas whining about their precarious perch at the top of the economy to a woman who, as a prostitute, was legally excluded from that economy, the Starz version seems to view the sex trade as just another form of female multitasking.

Christine Reade (Riley Keough) is an ambitious law student whom we quickly see "selling herself" to a variety of law firms at a job/internship fair (get it?)

Despite her sweet face and engaging manner, Christine is as unsentimental as she is lovely (and Keough, the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, is very lovely). Writers-directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz make this clear by her comments to equally chilly friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) — the law firms only want "to hear their words repeated back to them" — and a hot 'n' brazen hookup scene in which Christine issues many commands.

Though she lands the internship of her dreams, Christine is dismayed to discover that it involves a lot of entry-level grunt work for a cranky boss, not to mention a dress code apparently adopted from a casting call for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

So when Avery admits she is one of those magical creatures so beloved by tabloid headlines and writers of cinematic fiction — law student by day, "luxury escort" by night! — Christine quickly succumbs to a second career of high-end hotels, fancy lunches and envelopes stuffed with cash. (The "experience" of the title refers to a relationship with clients that often involves more escorting, and listening, than actual sex, though the implications of comparing one sort of companionship with another is left unexplored.)

And why shouldn't Christine capitalize on her other obvious skill set, even though it means plying a trade in which illegality historically has bred exploitation, social censure and physical abuse? It just requires some savvy scheduling and emotional distance is all. And a girl needs some way to pay for law school.

I will pause here to give all female law students past and present, including the one currently running for president, a moment to briefly wonder why no one ever offered them an envelope stuffed with Benjamins just to have cocktails and also to stop laughing.

Not, it must be said, at Keough, who gives "The Girlfriend Experience" the small amount of allure that it has. The camera loves her, and it should. At its best, the series documents an emotional shape-shifter, and Keough uses her admirably expressive face and body to convey a journey through the depths and shallows in a way that's frankly far beyond the confines of the script.

Like Showtime's "The Secret Diary of a Call Girl," "Girlfriend" attempts to be "nonjudgmental," i.e. to show the bad with the good. Christine is initially shocked to learn that some folks in the sex trade are not to be trusted (seriously, how did this woman get into law school?) while others, including some of her clients, are just as sad and displaced as she apparently feels.

For a while, the 13-episode season, which will begin streaming live on the Starz website and app even as it appears episodically on the network, seems mostly interested in presenting the logistics of Christine's new life — how do women juggle all that they do and still manage to look so great? Well, sometimes it's, you know, hard.

Like a sex-trade Supergirl (down to the buttoned-down "disguise" of messy bun and flats), she is a mild-mannered intern/increasingly borderline law student in one life while being an apparently wildly successful prostitute in another. Her charm appears to lie in her enigmatic amiability — the "girlfriend" of the experience; certainly the sex, though frequent, is mostly fat-free vanilla.

A sub-narrative emerges involving possible misdeeds at work (where Mary Lynn Rajskub is wasted as a potentially scheming patent attorney), but mostly the half-hour segments move in and out of often disjointed moments of Christine's escort-driven life at a pace that seems intentionally, and unforgivably, elliptical.

"The Girlfriend Experience" so longs to be arty, with its walls of glass and indirect lighting, that watching it is a bit like flipping through a stack of style and shelter magazines at the doctor's office. One perfectly empty interior gives way to another, a woman lies on this bed and that sofa. Though she is some powerhouse or another, the pose requires that her back be arched, her throat exposed; often her legs are in the air. Her look is aloof, her emotions unknowable, but presumably this is what she wants.

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Before you know it, 30 minutes have passed in which nothing much has happened, beyond the reinforcement of 1 million infuriating stereotypes and the thought of how great it would be if the narrative turned to Christine using her legal abilities to improve the lives of prostitutes, high-end and otherwise.

Like that's going to happen.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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'The Girlfriend Experience'

Where: Starz

When: 8 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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