The first season of Starz's The Girlfriend Experience was a captivating take on sex work that presented audiences with an inscrutable female antihero in the form of law student-turned-escort Christine Reade (Riley Keough). But after an extraordinary first season focusing solely on Christine's journey — to much critical acclaim — Season 2 goes the anthology route, leaving behind Christine but expanding on the first season's themes of sex, psychology, and power with two parallel storylines, one set in the cutthroat political sphere of Washington, D.C., and the other exploring identity in witness protection in New Mexico. Series co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz split up and separately wrote and directed the two stories, which don't intersect but air as back-to-back half-hour episodes, and this bold new format helps further the show's important objective in telling multiple stories about sex work in modern society.
Pushing the boundaries of TV formatting also keeps the audience guessing, and prevents the show from becoming "schematic," The Girlfriend Experience co-creator Lodge Kerrigan says. "If you watch Amy's [episodes] and you watch mine you see how [the themes] connect. Or you can watch just Amy's, or just mine. They're freestanding."
For co-creator Amy Seimetz, part of breaking the mold in Season 2 means redefining the title of the series. The topic of "the girlfriend experience," she says, is "a topic that you can approach from so many different angles, and talk about female agency and then also the hyper-capitalist society that we live in where everything has been commodified. There's a way to attack it and not sort of glorify or say that it's wrong."
While Season 1 centered on one woman's experience beginning a career as a call girl, Season 2 presents two new approaches to this topic. Kerrigan's episodes are told from the perspective of the person who hires the call girl, in this case, Erica (Pushing Daisies' Anna Friel), a woman in charge of a SuperPAC. But things get complicated when she becomes romantically involved with the escort she hired to blackmail a political rival. "You see then it's all about domination and submission," Friel says. "It's an exploration into the power struggles within relationships. Obviously that involves sex."
As both storylines unfold, the stakes are raised, perhaps moreso than in Season 1. "There is an element of melodrama in this season that wasn't in the first season," says Louisa Krause, who plays the call girl in question, Anna. It was Season 1's complexity, she adds, that made her want to dive in. "I was such a fan of this show after the first season," Krause says. "It's just fearless, provocative television."
Seimetz's story, meanwhile, takes the concept of reinventing yourself to another level. Her episodes follow Bria (Carmen Ejogo) as she enters witness protection and learns to become another person entirely after a girlfriend experience turned traumatic. Seimetz says she was particularly drawn to a story that would explore a woman's identity both inside and outside the world of escorting. "It was an interesting parallel to have these simultaneous stories of having a woman quite literally stripped of her identity and having to be somebody else while still dabbling in the world of the girlfriend experience," she says. "Just sort of this matryoshka doll of identity."
By pure coincidence, Seimetz cast Ejogo and then happened to be working with her as an actor on Alien Covenant — which gave them the chance to develop the character in an isolated environment. Ejogo says that Seimetz, a veteran indie filmmaker, was inspired by Ejogo when she wrote the character of Bria. "It became very personalized," Ejogo says.
For Ejogo, The Girlfriend Experience was a chance for her to be a part of a nuanced conversation about sex and sex work — something that's important to Kerrigan and Seimetz, who hope that the show's widened scope will encourage viewers to not see The Girlfriend Experience as representing the reality of sex work in any one specific way. "There's always this assumption, when you write a specific character or you address a certain topic that it immediately represents a cross-section of society," Kerrigan says. "I wrote three individual characters who aren't representative of cross-sections of society."
Kerrigan deliberately added an "almost theatrical" aesthetic to his D.C.-set storyline to slightly divorce it from reality. "You know it's a fake world and part of that fakeness is by design," Kerrigan says. The fact that this is just one of now three stories told by The Girlfriend Experience is essential, as Kerrigan and Seimetz are more interested in telling unique stories than they are in making a single definitive statement about sex work, women, or even politicians.
"It's such a nuanced, messy approach that it really gets into the darker blurrier places that we don't necessarily like to own up to perhaps being curious about or fascinated by because it's morally less appropriate," Ejogo says.
As a rare half-hour drama, The Girlfriend Experience was already redefining the television format, but with its unique approach to Season 2, the show is going a step further in its efforts to tell a variety of stories about sex workers in new and interesting ways. It's just an added bonus that the women of The Girlfriend Experience are complicated, mysterious, and in control of their own narratives in ways that you don't often see on television.