At what point does the salacious become significant storytelling art? When the point is to craft a disquieting examination of sex as transaction and to study the sort of mind that truly understands how sex sells.
The Girlfriend Experience (Sunday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is that. It is the most adult-minded of shows, thrillingly good and coolly repulsive. Created by Steven Soderbergh, along with personally chosen cohorts Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, and based loosely on his movie of the same title, it's made with breathtaking skill and seriousness.
It's about Christine (Riley Keough), a law student and an intern at a Chicago law firm. She's shrewd and clever, but, like anyone in her position, she needs money to live in any kind of comfort. Her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) lives in mansions or penthouse condos for free because she's got a relationship of sorts with the rich men who own them. Avery tells Christine that she works doing "the girlfriend experience," which is a tad more complicated than being an escort. She provides emotional support and succour, as well as sex, to the men. It's just about pretending to be another person, Avery says.
Christine signs up to do it, with unsettling speed. What she wants, apart from the money, what she's thinking, you cannot tell. Her chilly eyes and demeanour give away nothing. And so the series – half-hour episodes, with two airing on Sunday – glide lightly between Christine's work at the law firm and her "dates" with middle-aged, well-off men. There are many sex scenes, but they aren't erotic. They're not clinical, either. They are little dramas of power transactions; just as what unfolds in the law firm are tiny dramas of power, posturing, revenge and manipulation.
Soderbergh and his team made the series in Toronto and the location is key to its formidable tone and atmosphere. Most scenes are set in the glass towers of Bay Street or the crisply chic bars and restaurants where corporate lawyers dine, drink and play. It's all stunningly wintry, and downtown Toronto is used in the way that Mary Harron used it in filming American Psycho and David Cronenberg used it in Cosmopolis. The soul of it is its soulless quality.
The series is a puzzle, and is meant to be. What does Christine want? Is it money or is it the flowering of the secret exhibitionist quality that is suggested in her brief encounters with men who aren't paying her? Is she training herself to be the ultimate, chillingly ruthless corporate lawyer?
Well, one can read much into it. One speculative reading is that The Girlfriend Experience is an indictment of millennials' perceived narcissism and sense of entitlement. Christine and Avery are blithely scornful of the middle-aged, those who have jobs, comfort and success. Those older than them, especially men, exist only to be exploited. If there is any hint of the satisfaction that Christine gets from her sex work and the meals and drinks she has with the customers, it is a vague smugness about how easily flattered her clients are.
At the same time, there is a subtle but palpable sense of unease throughout every moment in The Girlfriend Experience. Few horror films have been as ethereal and indirect in suggesting that the awful is looming. And what makes that even more disquieting is the fact that Christine appears emotionless, intimidatingly in control.
Riley Keough is stunningly good as Christine. (She was a successful model before acting and is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and Danny Keough, making her the eldest grandchild of Elvis Presley.) It's an award-bait performance. Paul Sparks is excellent as the legal shark from whom Christine wants to learn. Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24 is underused as a figure in the corporate law offices, but there are several fine performances from Canadian actors, including Sugith Varughese, Kate Hewlett and Aidan Devine.
If you go to The Girlfriend Experience for a sexy turn-on, you'll be turned off, but you will be thrilled by what is a masterpiece of austere observation about this, our contemporary corporate world.
Also airing this weekend
Fear the Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) returns. "The families flee Los Angeles on Strand's yacht and find yet more danger at sea." Damn right they do. That's the point.
Race for the White House (Sunday, CNN, 9 p.m.) concludes with Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush. "Bill Clinton fights back against a tarnished image as adulterer and draft dodger to win the presidency." Days of innocence, my friends.