Data. Desire. Deceit.
In the first season not written or directed by creators Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3 is dealing with at least two themes familiar to the Starz anthology series, yet the latest twist is also its most intriguing. Data acquisition, accumulation, and analysis are massive fields, growing to digitize just about every facet of our lives, and Season 3 creator Anja Marquardt’s story posits one more: “What if desire could be quantified?”
Unlike “Black Mirror,” “Soulmates,” or other TV attempts to turn instinctual feelings into a salable algorithm, “The Girlfriend Experience” is working in R&D, not science fiction. (Or, it at least feels that way.) Season 3 isn’t about what happens when an app from the future picks your life partner. It’s about how that app could (or perhaps couldn’t) be built. Marquardt’s slick direction makes the thoughtful psychological studies she writes into one woman’s quest to define desire all the more intriguing — and the early results are as magnetic as they are mystifying.
Meet Iris. An American neuroscience major played by Julia Goldani Telles (“The Affair”), Iris is, if nothing else, adaptable. For her day job, she has to be. Head-hunted by a London tech company, she’s hired to study human behavior and form predictive analysis, so she has to learn how to talk to anyone, evaluate their identities, and then connect the dots between who they claim to be and what they really want. If that sounds a bit vague, it is; NGM describes itself as “a human desire company,” and it appears to be gathering data to create various theories that can then be turned into profitable applications. They may not know exactly what they’re looking for, but they know giving people what they want is always something people are willing to pay for.
At NGM, Iris is given lots of data to break down, but there’s always something missing. What people say they want doesn’t always line up with what they actually want, and hearing them talk about it openly isn’t the same as seeing desire transform someone first-hand. Enter her night job. After passing a cloak-and-dagger VR interview, Iris becomes Cassie, an ultra high-end escort who works for a mysterious company called “The V.” Through a voice on the other end of the phone, she books immaculate dinner dates and private lunches with notable public figures. And then she seduces them, playing whatever “girlfriend” she needs to be in order to discover the kind of person they really are, behind closed doors.
While the latter encounters are easily recognizable to anyone who’s seen the first two seasons, it’s Iris’ motivation that sets Marquardt’s “Girlfriend Experience” apart right away. Past seasons focused on how sex work compared to other professions, calling out unwanted parallels between “respectable” careers in law and politics, while also establishing the kind of independence provided by working for yourself. Risk was always a huge factor, whether it was the physical risk taken by isolating yourself with a stranger or professional risk of having one job conflict with the other. But Season 3 sees Iris pursuing the same end by different means. Her work at NGM and The V aren’t meant to satisfy different demands; they’re meant to benefit each other, and in turn benefit her. That’s not to say NGM would love to discover their latest recruit is a sex worker, but there are times during the first two episodes where you might wonder if the two shady companies are one in the same.
After such a small sample size (just two episodes out of 10), plenty of questions remain, many of which feel purposeful. Iris is given an uncomplicated backstory to justify her initial interest in the study of desire, but whether her character is expanded or complicated remains to be seen. Anyone who found previous seasons too cold or detached to invest in will likely feel similarly here. Telles’ performance feels pulled straight from executive producer Steven Soderbergh’s playbook of unreadable blankness, where a lead’s stoic turn invites key questions from the audience more than it provides easy answers. (See also: Sasha Grey in the original film.)
No matter what flaws viewers may find, the look won’t be one of them. Again set in stark, sterile environments, Marquardt makes the most of the streamlined spaces and COVID-friendly shooting requirements. Iris’ data-driven office is defined by the sharp edges of sleek computers and desks stripped bare of any personal touch. A five-star restaurant is dominated by a flood of beautiful yellows and reds, as close-up pops of gold emphasize key items, gestures, and moments. Hospital rooms are all the more foreboding in their lack of people, let alone machines with live-preserving wires or decorations meant to ease your worry. Season 3 is meticulous in its construction, and the extra outdoor scenes or limited physical contact aren’t distractions. They add to the story Marquardt is telling.
Still, it’s too early to guess at what points the writer-director aims to make about the three D’s. These big, mysterious companies are obviously holding things back, but which one is protecting valuable information and which is hiding it? Which one offers honest work, and which is ready to do anything for an extra dollar? Are both ready to take everything from Iris for their own benefit? Is that what any business asks of its employees these days?
“The Girlfriend Experience” has never been a cautionary tale about sex workers, and it routinely empowers its leading ladies while deflating any lingering faith in the purity of other professions. It’s also a show that asks its characters to be honest about what they want, even if it’s not what the world expects of them. That’s the reward at the end of their journey — a better understanding of themselves — while audiences are asked to answer similar questions for similar reasons. In Season 3, Iris seems to be looking for more, and for now, I think audiences can expect more in return.
“The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3 premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Starz will release the first episode Sunday, May 2 at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the trailer below.