If you want a hard imagining of the politics of sex, there are few territories that might seem as unrewarding as that of sex and politics. Movies and TV are filled with conventional, cautionary tales. The politician is male, he is weak and he succumbs to desire or uses his power to seduce and lessons are learned about weakness.
The actual politics of sex when real, corrosive politics are involved is considerably more chilling, fraught and dangerous for the weak. One of the best, and most unnerving, dramas of the year goes straight into that territory. And it is tough going for the easily unsettled, be forewarned.
It is Season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience (Sunday, Super Channel at 10 p.m.). The first season was loosely based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name and mainly followed law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough) as she became an escort who offered the "girlfriend experience" to her clients. It was stunningly good, this coolly repulsive drama, and earned Keough a Golden Globe nomination.
Now, it turns out The Girlfriend Experience is evolving as an anthology show. This season, there are entirely different characters in an entirely different setting. But the arena is still the place where young women offer the high-end escort pleasures of the "girlfriend experience" to male clients. There are two storylines, told in separate half-hour episodes. All episodes are written, directed and executive produced by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who are the co-creators. This is emphatically a female gaze on the politics of the sex trade.
One of the two storylines is steeped in contemporary U.S. politics. In what seems to be the 2018 midterm-election period, there is Republican super PAC finance operative Erica Myles (Anna Friel). She's a woman skilled in the business of raising money from wealthy men to back her candidate. When her story opens, she's under fierce pressure because a rogue rich guy is backing a different candidate. She wants access to that money. Erica has also just broken up with her girlfriend.
Turns out that guy with the money and secret power to influence regularly hires escort Anna (Louisa Krause) for sex and the girlfriend experience and he boasts about his money and influence. Anna, who appears to be dead behind the eyes, sells information about her client, whom she despises with the kind of cold hatred that comes from having paid sex with him.
There unfolds a tricky relationship between Erica and Anna. This relationship, and the manipulation of money in support of right-wing causes, plays out in vast empty rooms, near-deserted chic restaurants and in empty spaces where human emotions seem frail but dangerous. Male millionaires and billionaires are pulling the strings behind male conservative politicians with ruthless efficiency, but women on the fringe of this arrangement have the ultimate power – they read male body language and understand male vanity – and are even more ruthless.
Like the first season, the series is an uncommon, unsettling viewing experience. The sex is lurid and joyless and it is the manipulation of power that is erotic. There is more literal beauty in those empty hotel corridors and buildings of grey cement and steel than there is in the sight of bodies having sex. There isn't a single likeable character, really. The only one to root for is Anna, whose contempt for her client emerges in clipped, frosty terms. At the same time, Anna is a trader, selling information to the highest bidder, just as she sells her body.
Like the first series, this batch of episodes was made in Toronto and makes formidably good use of the glass towers of Bay Street and the antiseptic, chic bars and restaurants where corporate players dine and drink.
It's all stunningly wintry and the coldness of it is uncannily compelling. Only David Cronenberg has used the city with such visual elan.
While the story of Anna and Erica takes up episodes one to seven, the ensuing six – as they're aired in Canada – are about Bria (Carmen Ejogo), a former escort who has entered the witness-protection program. Deeply afraid of her former boyfriend/pimp, she and her stepdaughter are relocated to New Mexico. To ensure she testifies against the man targeted, her life is overseen by a brooding U.S. marshal named Ian (Tunde Adebimpe), a man both aroused and repulsed by Bria.
When Bria decides to secretly return to sex work, to break the monotony and revive her feeling of power, her relationship with Ian goes terribly, appallingly awry. These episodes are about the perverse cravings of a sex worker who knows she can manipulate rich, powerful men with her body and by flattering them. The problem, of course, is that they also have an agenda. What happens to Ian through all of this is a scathing insight into male weakness and stunted feelings.
The new season is similar to the first but treading in slightly different physical territory, a small masterpiece of TV storytelling. Its chill starkness is stunningly beautiful, its clipped but laden dialogue is elliptical yet enormously revealing. The sex scenes are often gross and meant to be, in order to make the viewer contemplate the dynamics of power – for all the eroticism, it is utterly loveless. As such, it is adult drama of the highest, most chilling order.
Also airing this weekend
Inseparable: 10 Years Joined at the Head (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is about conjoined twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan. It's a follow-up to Twin Life: Sharing Mind and Body, also directed by Vancouver-based Judith Pyke. The conjoined Hogan sisters were described in the first doc as "the only known twins who doctors suspect can see what the other sees, and feel what the other feels." They are also "craniopagus twins" and as such are "the only people in the world known to share a neural bridge between their thalamus – a part of the brain involved in the regulation of consciousness along with sensory and motor signals." They have survived to their 10th birthday after being given only a tiny chance of survival at all at birth.