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‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Has Become Disconnected from Desire

The third season of the Steven Soderbergh-produced escort drama dives deep into tech and science — and loses some of its spark along the way.
The Girlfriend Experience Season
By  · Published on May 2nd, 2021

Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Season 3 of the Steven Soderbergh-produced Starz series The Girlfriend Experience.

The latest season of The Girlfriend Experience opens with a VR job interview at an escort agency. Everything in the near-empty virtual room is pristine and white, and the anthology series’ new protagonist, Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), looks like a matching porcelain doll. The digital form of her future employer lays down the rules for this tech-based take on sex work: the platform that matches her with dates takes a thirty percent commission, and as with other gig economy apps, users will rate Iris based on their experiences with her.

After nearly a four-year hiatus, the provocative Starz series is back, and it’s looking to the future.

Created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, with Steven Soderbergh executive producing (he made a film of the same name in 2009), The Girlfriend Experience now has Anja Marquardt at the helm, directing and writing every episode of Season 3. Each storyline follows a different high-end escort, all of them women, most of them white and involved in sex work by choice. This premise is fruitful territory for meditations on desire, intimacy, and power, but the show takes an unexpected turn into the area of technology and gets lost in its own musings along the way.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if The Girlfriend Experience Season 3 is a work of science fiction. The new arc is dutifully determined to present itself as a part of the cutting edge. Long expository conversations about neuro-technology, floaty shots of skyscrapers, and the occasional shiny-fake VR room constantly hammer home the point that the future is now. American transplant Iris moves to London and becomes a sex worker by night, not out of any obvious interest in money, influence, or sex itself, but to independently gather data for her day job at a start-up that’s engineering advanced AI technology related to human emotion. Meanwhile, her father has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, adding a genuinely heartfelt motivation for her work in brain sciences.

Based on the five episodes available for review, The Girlfriend Experience Season 3 is a series of missed opportunities and dull narrative detours. The show has gotten bolder with each season, but Marquardt’s decision to make sex little more than data to quantify is the wrong kind of daring. Iris’ escapades as an escort are a disjointed plot device that seems like an afterthought meant to loosely tie this season to the anthology series’ through-line. If the scientist wants a general understanding of human desire, why would she start with the rich and powerful clients of an escort agency? Most of her choices seem counterintuitive at best, but she’s also not fleshed out enough — either in script or performance — for her purpose to be clear in the first place.

There’s also something important missing from The Girlfriend Experience Season 3: sex. When Seimetz and Kerrigan ran the show, it was proof positive of the power of a well-built sex scene. Riley Keough’s Christine, in Season 1, and Carmen Ejogo’s Bria, in Season 2, both played fully developed, dynamic characters whose true selves were revealed most clearly in the bedroom. The first season, which remains the best, uses sex scenes to propel the plot, shift essential power dynamics, reveal emotional truths, and even force viewers to examine their own desires.

When Iris’ season of The Girlfriend Experience does let us into the bedroom, which is comparatively rare, the sequences feel stubbornly surface-level. Telles plays Iris with a certain blankness. We don’t know what turns the character on, or even what interests her beyond her work. She dictates notes on her clients, turning their intimate experiences into bullet points. Previous seasons’ leads have been emotionally distant as a defense mechanism, but this is different: at a certain point, Iris may as well be an AI program herself.

Marquardt’s story is most intriguing when it disorients, blurring the line between reality, virtual reality, and Iris’ dreamscapes. At times, it seems as if the series is holding some cards close to its chest, guiding our focus towards all the wrong areas before maybe, eventually, pulling the rug out from under us. This sense of mysterious unreality is present from the very first scene and reappears in short moments that play with audio, lighting, and tone. This is the most interesting aspect of the show’s latest iteration so far, but as of the season’s midpoint, it’s unclear whether or not it’ll pay off in any significant way.

Sex work has changed in real, concrete ways since The Girlfriend Experience disappeared from the airwaves in 2017. It’s a topic on which public attitudes, legislation, language, and yes, technology, are ever-changing. If the series really wanted to “decode desire,” as its tagline claims, there are plenty of real-life jumping-off points worth examining, from the rise of OnlyFans to a Trump-era law that impacts not only sex workers but the whole internet.

The Girlfriend Experience has always been a glossy, dramatic character study, but by underutilizing the sex work, and the sex worker, at its center in order to fixate on topics it can’t seem to cohesively tie together, it has lost the focus — and the spark — that made the series unique.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)