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‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Reinvents the Anthology Series Yet Again

The second season, which is divided into two parallel stories, makes the most of television’s flexibility

Riley Keough putting on makeup in ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Starz/Ringer illustration

Since Ryan Murphy killed off the core cast of American Horror Story in its first-season finale, the idea that a show could be not just one long story, but a collection of shorter ones, has upended the definition of television itself. The medium may have begun as bundles of one-offs packaged under names like Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone, but the intervening half-century saw shows unravel their plot over multiple episodes and seasons. Starting afresh—with new concepts, sets, and costumes—is expensive, and besides, once a show has earned a hard-won sense of familiarity, why flush that audience-show bonding down the drain by getting rid of those characters?

American Horror Story kicked off a mini revolution. The rise of the so-called “anthology”—a term that encompasses both shows that start from scratch each episode, like Black Mirror, and shows that regenerate after a full eight to 12 episodes, like Feud—benefits impatient veterans like Murphy, who can finally dabble in more compressed stories after a CV infamously stuffed with strong starts and weak finishes. But it has also opened the door for film artists to transition into a slightly more analogous medium—a trend True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and helmed by Cary Fukunaga in its first season, embodied on both sides of the camera. (Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Justin Lin pitched in for Season 2.) Film screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote scripts for The People v. O.J. Simpson, another Murphy production. John Ridley of 12 Years a Slave created American Crime, which ran for three seasons on ABC. Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, and Ewan McGregor all followed McConaughey’s lead and took turns on Fargo.

Yet the idea of television as a new home for filmmakers was escalated to an entirely new level by The Girlfriend Experience, the Starz series “suggested by” Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 feature. Soderbergh, who serves as an executive producer, put this unlikely piece of IP—a low-budget movie starring adult-film star Sasha Grey—squarely in the hands of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, writer-directors with a background in independent features. Kerrigan and Seimetz co-wrote the entire first season, then split directing duties throughout its 13 half-hour episodes.

In this second season, which premiered Sunday, Kerrigan and Seimetz have claimed an even greater degree of autonomy. Though their combined output still adds up to a complete season of television, Kerrigan and Seimetz have split up to create two shorter, parallel stories, each of which gives sole script and directing credits to Kerrigan or Seimetz. There are some structural and thematic similarities, but neither half—Kerrigan’s is titled “Erica & Anna” and Seimetz’s “Bria,” both after their protagonists—has any more direct a connection to the other as either does to the first volume. When I spoke to them last year, Kerrigan and Seimetz compared The Girlfriend Experience to an extra-long movie, an analogy popular among TV creators attempting to stress the serialized nature of their stories and encouraged by Starz making the entire first season available even as episodes aired individually on the network itself. Season 2, however, makes the comparison more literal than ever. Seimetz and Kerrigan have essentially reinterpreted the anthology and made two separate, feature-length stories in dialogue with one another.

Of the season’s two chapters, Kerrigan’s “Erica & Anna” bears far more resemblance to last season’s story, which followed a law student just entering the world of high-end escorting. Trading Chicago for Washington, D.C., and a white-shoe law firm for a Republican Super PAC, “Erica & Anna” retains The Girlfriend Experience’s interest in the overlap between white-collar professional work and white-collar sex work. This time, however, those careers are explored through two different characters: Erica (Anna Friel) is a ruthless finance director, and Anna (Louisa Krause) is the escort she meets by enlisting her in a blackmail scheme, then enters a personal relationship with. “Erica & Anna” also runs with the austere, pewter-and-silver aesthetic established in the last season, except this time pushed to such an extreme the effect borders on the surreal. Every wall we see is bare; every shot is static, with a composition so precise it puts Mr. Robot to shame. The closest Kerrigan gets to a soundtrack or music of any kind is the expensive hum of a luxury car. Aired first on Sunday night—Kerrigan and Seimetz will alternate time slots throughout the season’s seven-week run—“Erica & Anna” offers a recognizable, if escalated, entry back into the show’s world.

But “Bria,” which aired immediately afterward, rebuts the idea that The Girlfriend Experience is limiting itself to a single atmosphere or social milieu. As if to confront the audience via stark contrast, its very first scene features handheld camerawork and a prominent score, neither of which you’ll find anywhere near “Erica & Anna.” Both techniques are employed as federal law enforcement raids a compound in New Mexico, on the other side of the country from “Erica & Anna.” There, the FBI finds the live-in girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo) of a crime boss, who adopts the name Bria once she enters the witness protection program with her sorta-stepdaughter Kayla (Morgana Davies). In everything from color palette to its lead’s occupation, “Bria” is a much more significant expansion of what a Girlfriend Experience story can be, a crucial step for anthology series to take before they find themselves getting repetitive. Bria used to be an escort—it’s how she met her ex—but now finds herself marooned in an anonymous, manual job, caught between a U.S. Marshal (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, transformed into a square) and Paul (Harmony Korine), a man she meets on a Seeking Arrangements–like site in an attempt to break back into a world she understands. Mostly, though, she remains stuck in the kind of low-rent apartment The Girlfriend Experience mostly eschews for luxury hotel rooms.

Independently, both Kerrigan and Seimetz’s mini seasons are intriguing, but it’s in conversation with one another that their experiment truly begins to take shape. They’re certainly intended to be taken in that way; unlike last year, Starz won’t be making the entire season available at once, so viewers will have to take in each half one segment at a time if they’re following the show as new episodes are released. That decision may have as much to do with network business concerns as creative priorities, but the effect is positioning “Erica & Anna” and “Bria” as a direct dialogue rather than two wholly separate entities. There are clear parallels between them, some implicit (sex work in particular and transactional or power-based relationships in general) and some explicit (both stories share the specific detail of their protagonists walking out of an important meeting and into a taxicab at exactly the same point), with Kerrigan and Seimetz telling Variety they look forward to their audience interpreting even more. Their interconnected nature also keeps Kerrigan and Seimetz’s projects from literally becoming the two distinct films they superficially resemble. The Girlfriend Experience may be television that bears a striking resemblance to movies, but the way it’s being presented is a novelty only possible in TV.

The actual contents of The Girlfriend Experience’s second season don’t always bear out the promise of its form. Both Kerrigan and Seimetz prefer action and presentation to dialogue and dense plot, a tendency that, paired with an abbreviated running time, threatens to hamstring character development on a show that’s theoretically a set of character studies. By season’s end, I didn’t feel I knew Erica, Anna, or Bria nearly as well as Season 1’s Christine. But The Girlfriend Experience still deserves to be watched as groundbreaking TV. Where American Horror Story freed creators from the obligation to stretch a story across multiple seasons, The Girlfriend Experience shows that it’s not necessary to prolong a narrative for even one. Kerrigan and Seimetz view the season as a block of time for them to divvy up and play around with any way they see fit, a degree of freedom that, while clearly a luxury, also leads by example. The Girlfriend Experience may tackle risqué subjects head-on, but it’s the way Kerrigan and Seimetz choose to do so that’s truly transgressive.