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‘The Girlfriend Experience’ and the New Age of Auteur TV

Your film-snob friend’s favorite term has hit the small screen

Starz/Ringer illustration
Starz/Ringer illustration

Calling a TV show “cinematic” is like calling an opinion “problematic”: It sounds descriptive without describing anything at all. The term generally applies to series that qualify as visually ambitious — as opposed to TV that looks the way TV has generally looked, which is to say, not great — without detailing how or why the filmmaking contributes to the show. (Lingering close-ups? “Cinematic.” Dutch angles? “Cinematic.” Four-minute tracking shots? The most “cinematic.”) Worse than being vague, it’s also increasingly meaningless. Shorter seasons and self-contained seasons have made TV more like movies; “expanded universes” and a free-for-all exchange of talent have made movies more like TV.

The Girlfriend Experience, which airs its finale this Sunday, is obviously and directly connected to film by way of its inspiration, Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 feature of the same name. On its own, however, The Girlfriend Experience shows how two formats on an accelerating collision course can merge successfully. The production is a hybrid that replaces one creative figurehead, the all-powerful showrunner (for our purposes, the chief producer on set), with another: the writer-director. In The Girlfriend Experience, filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz offer a 2016 version of the HBO Davids, a new model for single-vision prestige TV. Soderbergh, the aughts’ ur-auteur, saw a TV landscape hungry for writer-directors — and ushered two of them into the void.

That’s because though Soderbergh had final cut — which, Seimetz says, “essentially meant that we had final cut” — The Girlfriend Experience is ultimately a collaboration. Kerrigan and Seimetz cowrote and directed all 13 episodes. (Though Kerrigan had directed Seimetz on an episode of AMC’s The Killing, the two hadn’t previously collaborated behind the camera.) It was Soderbergh’s idea to pair them off for the project, which recasts Sasha Grey’s midcareer sex worker as law student turned escort Christine Reade (Riley Keough). “I started to warm up to the idea once I saw that the format was much more open than it once had been,” Seimetz says. “Combined with the growing frustration of finding financing to continue making the stories that I wanted to tell, it was sort of this magical meeting.”

This neatly captures the principal appeal of the current TV climate for career filmmakers. As non-tentpole movies get harder to make, TV’s deep coffers and built-in distribution hold considerable appeal — all the more so given networks’ new appetite for shorter seasons and anthologies. The concept for True Detective’s open-and-shut first season didn’t just win over Matthew McConaughey; it also snagged Cary Fukunaga in between Jane Eyre and Beasts of No Nation.

While a process that’s friendly to creators doesn’t automatically yield better results, The Girlfriend Experience is a meticulously crafted narrative, tracking Christine’s steady and discernible growth into a seasoned professional. It’s also visually cohesive, documenting Christine’s plunge into the bowels of late capitalism from an icy, distant remove. The result resembles little else on television — besides Mr. Robot, another drama of economic and personal alienation whose second season will have the ultimate signifier of cinematic TV: a single director, creator Sam Esmail.

Historically, TV wasn’t the place for this kind of cinematic vision. Churning out up to two-dozen hours of show a year on a punishing production schedule often yields a visual style that’s perfunctory or at least unremarkable. (Hence why your snobbier friends have always sung the praises of British TV, with “series” that often weigh in at a half-dozen episodes or fewer. See The Night Manager, starring Taylor Swift’s future trophy husband and directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier.) And while cable’s abridged seasons and heightened production values have alleviated this somewhat, even the Golden Age’s de facto auteurs have been showrunners, who generally helm the writers’ room rather than the camera.

But the changing ways we create and consume TV have opened a lane. “I really feel that independent filmmakers are well suited to direct television, especially ones that come from a low-budget background,” Kerrigan says. “You’re used to working under that kind of time pressure, as opposed to directors who come from much larger-budget work.” (Between guest-directing on Homeland, his first experience in television, and helming his own show, Kerrigan also directed episodes of Bates Motel, The Americans, and The Killing, where he met Seimetz.) The Girlfriend Experience’s self-contained narrative also eased the transition for Seimetz, who hadn’t seriously considered breaking into TV before Soderbergh got in touch. “It was a way to enter that world without feeling like I had to do the same story over and over, year after year after year. So you could do a reset each season, but still play around with the serialized format.” Binge-watching further blurs the lines, giving viewers the option to take in The Girlfriend Experience as either 13 chapters airing weekly or as what Seimetz calls a “three-and-a-half-hour movie” by streaming it online. Jill Soloway, who made Transparent directly after her feature Afternoon Delight, has described her series in similar terms, and at just six half-hour episodes, Woody Allen’s upcoming Amazon project is almost indistinguishable from a film.

TV’s recent sea changes have opened the format to the likes of Allen, Martin Scorsese (who directed the pilots of both Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl), and, of course, Soderbergh himself, who’s helmed every episode of The Knick. But The Girlfriend Experience precedent of tapping experienced directors who aren’t household names feels both more sustainable — not even Netflix has enough money to win a David Fincher bidding war every time— and more hospitable to filmmakers who don’t have Scorsese-level clout to make projects happen when and how they want. According to Seimetz, cable’s hands-off creative process is a far cry from film financing, a process that’s often “cast-contingent and fear-based … and rightfully so; your investors want to make back their money.”

The Girlfriend Experience — along with shows like True Detective’s first season, The Knick, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman — offers a version of film auteurism as we traditionally understand it, adapted to fit the demands of a medium that is itself constantly changing. As TV continues to expand, so will the kinds of shows it can support.

“It was a very particular, specific environment that allowed us the freedom to do what we do best,” Kerrigan says. “It’s certainly my hope that this would be an example.”