“The Girlfriend Experience,” about a Chicago law student who decides to moonlight as a call girl, doesn’t try to win you over. The sets — bedrooms and offices alike — are uniformly sterile and modern, the characters are coolly subdued and generally speak in tranquil tones, and the atmosphere is willfully calm, almost unnervingly so as the show quells any hints of dramatic explosions, sometimes threatening to burst wide open but never doing so. The overall effect made me think of the movie “American Psycho,” which was so chilly, urbane, and menacing.
And yet, in its own muted way, “The Girlfriend Experience” won me over. The show is a canny look at business and capitalism, as it follows Christine Reade (Riley Keough) from her sexual assignations to her internship at a high-end law firm. Gradually, as the action toggles between the two worlds, it gains a mesmerizing and addictive rhythm. The ideas that fuel the show — that people will do all kinds of risky things for cash, that the world of big money and the world of escorts share plenty in common, that everything is a kind of legal negotiation — are durable enough to yield many rich parallels and contrasts. Once I got used to the numbed-out vibe, I found the show to be an elegant, haunting, fascinating, and timely nightmare.
The Starz show, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. with two episodes, is loosely based on the 2009 movie by Steven Soderbergh, who executive produces for Starz and who has two people — Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz — writing and directing. They all seem to be on the same page, which gives the story — told in 13 half-hour episodes — a remarkably confident flow. There’s plenty of sex, of course, but I didn’t find those scenes to be especially Showtimey, by which I mean somewhat gratuitous and heated up. Christine’s dates, and her personal sexual encounters, too, have the same remote quality as everything else on the show. We watch Christine become more and more ensconced in her two jobs, and we see her lives threaten to crash into each other, and still, everything seems to be happening at a distance. The characters even seem distant from themselves.
Keough is just right for the role. She projects wide-eyed innocence as she finds her way into the world of prostitution, but she also seems empty enough to take it on without a lot of emotional damage, and ambitious enough to learn very quickly how the job works and what the men who hire her are looking for. At times, she comes across like Elisabeth Moss’s unformed Peggy in the first season of “Mad Men,” but ultimately we can sense that she’s no pushover, that she knows how to use her power. Christine seems to understand that ultimately she is alone, that only she can help herself to the top.
Like everyone around her in this smart portrait of a hollow world, she knows how to play the game.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
Starring: Riley Keough, Paul Sparks, Briony Glassco, Mary Lynn Rajskub
On: Starz, Sunday at 8 and 8:30 p.m.