Credited as being “suggested by”, rather than “adapted from”, Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, season one of the provocative drama The Girlfriend Experience (available on NEON now along with this latest season) chronicled a young law student’s entry into a specific type of high-end prostitution, where customers pay more for something closer to baggage-free intimacy.
Praised for its artful execution and non-judgemental perspective, the thirteen-episode first season was the collaborative work of two writer/directors handpicked by Soderbergh: Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz.
For the second season of The Girlfriend Experience, Kerrigan and Seimetz split into two teams and each wrote and directed their own season-spanning storyline comprised of seven half-hour sections. None of the characters from season one are returning, and there is no narrative overlap between the two new storylines. The parallel stories play out concurrently, with each one-hour episode of The Girlfriend Experience containing a new half-hour entry in each storyline.
It’s a format that’s more or less unprecedented in contemporary television, but that’s just the way Kerrigan and Seimetz like it.
“It’s in the spirit of the initial discussions that Amy, Steven and I had,” says Kerrigan. “To try to push the boundaries of television. Coming up with season two, I think Amy and I really wanted to push the idea of what’s possible on television in terms of storytelling. And so we found that really exciting, this idea that we could, within the context of the role of escorting in as broad a sense as possible, that structurally you could really do something very radical.”
Although both storylines centre around an experienced escort, they take place in vastly different settings.
Kerrigan’s story takes place in Washington D.C. in the very near future: the build-up the hotly anticipated 2018 midterm elections at which time America will reckon with its recent political choices.
Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies) plays the tough-as-nails Erica Myles, a Republican fundraiser who employs a Girlfriend Experience-provider named Anna (Louisa Krause) in a scheme to blackmail a rival fundraiser into handing over his donor list. Things then become personal between Anna and Erica.
Siemetz’s story occurs in New Mexico, and follows Bria (Alien Covenant‘s Carmen Ejogo), a former escort who recently agreed to testify against her abusive gangster husband (whom she met on the job) and consequently has been put into the Witness Protection programme. Going slightly out of her mind in a small anonymous town with her resentful teenage stepdaughter, Bria slides back into the Girlfriend Experience world, a less than advisable move when you’re supposed to be laying low.
Both storylines build on the penetrative indie film aesthetic explored in the first season and feature multiple searing characterisations, but the political setting of Kerrigan’s sections can’t help but seem especially loaded in today’s climate. Kerrigan says he revisited the scripts after Trump was elected.
“They were written but I actually re-wrote them after the conclusion of the election,” he says. “I tweaked them. I was just really open to the idea that reality is now becoming stranger than fiction and so in the writing of it and the re-writing of it, without giving too much away, I just tried to be really open to that and being able to make last-minute adjustments as we were shooting.”
Kerrigan sees parallels between the two industries he’s exploring.
“The self-serving nature of the political world just seemed to be very apt at this time,” he says. “There’s so much self-interest under this veneer of democracy. I think there’s a lot of veneer to the whole world of GFE and luxury, presenting an image of escorts. Presenting some kind of fantasy or image to their clients. Not really who they necessarily really are, but a version of themselves.”
Siemetz says that while The Girlfriend Experience in no way seeks to romanticise prostitution, it doesn’t feel especially beholden to the realities of that world either.
“There’s not a temptation for us to glorify it at all or make it look pretty or make it look like anything more than what it is,” says Siemetz, an actor/filmmaker who co-starred alongside Ejogo in Alien Covenant. “There is a definition of realism that I do want to stay away from as well, as a narrative filmmaker. And there is creative license. I use creative license in a definition of what the Girlfriend Experience is. I’m not trying to make a documentary at all, I would never. Our intention was to explore a topic and be non-judgemental about the profession itself and not try to glorify it or condemn it. We approach the subject matter with the same objectivity that you do with something like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.”
The creators anticipate the audience making thematic connections between the two storylines.
“There’s no crossover at all, they’re completely separate,” says Kerrigan. “If you’re watching both you can see what the thematic mirroring is and also I think it’s really interesting too because a lot of audiences are gonna draw connections that perhaps Amy and I didn’t necessarily intend. Because it’s human nature to draw connections, in terms of storytelling.”