Over at The New Yorker, film critic Richard Brody has seen all 13 episodes of the new Starz original drama The Girlfriend Experience — and has concluded that what’s holding back this six-hour narrative is the “the rigid format of serial television.” Brody’s allowed to have issues with The Girlfriend Experience. But did he have to drag TV into it?
He cites an early scene in the pilot in which protagonist Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a law student who will later sashay into the world of high-end prostitution, spies a man in a bar, approaches him, and tells him, “I saw you from across the room and I want to fuck you.” Here’s Brody’s on what happens next:
Cut to his apartment, with Christine on top of him. What was their introductory conversation? How did they get to his apartment? What did they discuss en route? All of the uncomfortable practicalities of undressing, the likelihood of some foreplay — all of the time-unfolding elements of the action are eliminated in the interest of dispensing a bit of information: they have sex, whoever “they” are — the man is anonymous to viewers but doubtless not to Christine. In another bit that follows, Christine withdraws from the man’s clinches to masturbate while the man watches and masturbates, too. Cut to Christine waking up in the morning and virtually fleeing the man’s apartment.
It’s an accurate description, but it also complicates the events of the show with Brody’s expectations of how they should unfold. We do hear their “introductory conversation” — it’s Christine telling him she wants to fuck him — and does it really matter what they discussed en route to his apartment to have a one-night stand? The man is anonymous to viewers because that’s precisely how Christine sees him — and, more importantly, how she wants to see him.
Brody ties his complaints about the show to the serialized TV format, but doesn’t really explain how the two are related. He writes of that scene, “There is no time for the characters — and the actors — to do nothing, to speak casually and to be merely present.” I don’t understand why that’s the fault of the episodic format — if anything, telling a story over six hours instead of two gives the filmmaker more time for all those things — and more to the point, the choice to not have Christine explain her actions or “speak casually” and “be merely present” is just that, a choice, not a demand of the half-hour episode format. It’s a choice that drew me into the series when I first watched it, and that compelled me to keep watching it.
According to Brody, though, we’re not watching the product of two filmmakers’ artistic choices (co-creators Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan split directing duties); we’re watching “the work of serial form itself,” a form to which the work of these two talented filmmakers “has been subordinated.” This reeks of the kind of film snobbery I thought we had gotten past at this point, and it gets worse when Brody goes on to conclude that Seimetz and Lodge must be in it for the money and to “advance their careers.”
It’s not a secret that writers, directors, and actors have found more room to breathe creatively in television in the past five or ten years than in film; it’s disappointing to see Brody so readily dismiss the entire industry. He writes that television is “extremely resistant” the kind of “daring artistry” that Seimetz displays in her feature film debut, Sun Don’t Shine, but he doesn’t give any indication that he’s even watched very much TV: He points to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as the first and last director-driven series to transcend TV’s “familiar modes of storytelling,” and his one example of the kind of artistry he would like to see on TV is Li’l Quinquin, a 2014 French mini-series that was broadcast in four hour-long chunks, but that was originally conceived and presented as a three-hour-and-twenty-minute film.
Brody would like to see filmmakers do more “idiosyncratic, personal, and original” work in television, but this is already happening —whether or not the creators in question began their careers in film — and if you’re a fan of TV, it’s been really exciting to watch. Has Brody seen Transparent? The Knick? Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Louie? Adventure Time? Mr. Robot? Top of the Lake? Horace and Pete? I bet he’d like that one. But all of these might be a tough sell to someone whose ideal television show is a four-hour French film directed by a man whom Variety describes as “the high priest of cine-miserablism drawn to Bressonian tales of spiritual suffering.”
Brody’s beef isn’t with TV; he’s bothered by the lack of interest The Girlfriend Experience seems to take in Christine’s inner life, the show’s “calculated ambiguity.” How is TV’s serialized format to blame? The takeaway seems to be that television by its very definition will corrupt the fine sensibilities of independent filmmakers. There’s a word for that kind of logic: rigid.