The intersection of sex work and corporate sterility is where Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience has set up shop. The half-hour anthology drama has jumped from city to city and industry to industry in its first three iterations — a white-shoe law firm in Season 1 (starring Riley Keough), a GOP fundraising outfit (featuring Louisa Krause) and a government safe house (with Carmen Ejogo) in the bifurcated Season 2 — but its chilly minimalism and airless, increasingly claustrophobic tone have been series-defining constants. At this juncture more a riff on than an adaptation of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film, The Girlfriend Experience has been, since its debut in 2016, one of TV’s most compelling meditations on the alienation of work (in any field) and the ways in which many of us prefer impersonal mechanisms to the human touch.
That makes the setting of its third season, the tech world, a natural progression in the series. Julia Goldani Telles (Bunheads, The Affair) takes over as the lead: behavioral psychologist Iris, who works at a matchmaking-through-AI startup in London by day and for a high-end escort service by night. Original series creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz left the show after Season 2, passing the baton to Anja Marquadt (She’s Lost Control), who wrote and directed all 10 episodes.
Iris’ entry into sex work begins in a sci-fi-esque white void, where her interview for the escort agency takes place. In their VR simulation, the older woman (Talisa Garcia) evaluating Iris can’t be sure that the face the applicant is presenting is her own; she apparently doesn’t know what Iris looks like at all. It’s the first of many credulity-straining details that make Marquadt’s stab at the series, at least based on the first five episodes, a frustrating follow-up.
Tech has upended the nature of sex work in a hundred and one ways — a reality smartly explored in, for example, the 2018 thriller Cam, which tackled both the skewed incentives in the internet-based gig economy and the next-level cyber-stalking that too-attached customers might pursue. But Marquadt seems uninterested in how sex work on the ground would be affected by the invisible algorithms that rule our lives — and that her protagonist is helping to create. In fact, Iris occupies a fairly traditional line of sex work: Other than the ratings and reviews that her customers leave her, there’s not much that someone like her wouldn’t be doing moonlighting in 1992.
That’s a wasted premise, but the new season’s biggest disappointment is its grating lead character. The Girlfriend Experience has always held its protagonists at arm’s length — we never learn much about them, and their motivations are more to be inferred than nailed down. They’re never meant to be conventionally likable, either; they move according to their internal rhythms, whose beats are largely muted to us. We get a bit more backstory with Iris: Her father has early-onset dementia, which makes her need for extra cash and her willingness to cross the Atlantic for a job more understandable. As for her habit of psychoanalyzing her clients — sometimes to their faces — well, is there a single more effective mood-killer? At work, Iris and her barely sketched coworker Hiram (Armin Karima) babble on about the true nature of desire and compatibility, with all the intellectual heft of dirty talk.
Iris’ irksomeness isn’t helped by Telles’ confusing performance, which often leans toward petulance, even when there’s no reason for it. One fresh wrinkle that Marquadt introduces is Iris’ trial-and-error process when it comes to reeling in her customers for the first time; despite her training in “nonverbal cues,” she often misjudges their preferences and has to recalibrate her approach. But with Telles, it’s not always clear what’s supposed to be an awkward flirtation with a client versus a successful one, and the opacity often muddles, rather than heightens, the atmospherics Marquadt strives for.
Worlds inevitably collide on The Girlfriend Experience; the men in the jetsetting circles that its protagonists work for nine to five are often the same kind of men that pay for companionship on nights and weekends. It’s practically become a series formula at this point, which is why it’s admirable that Marquadt braids the two industries in her season in a new pattern, and dispiriting that it’s so implausible. Like too much of this season, it just doesn’t hold together enough.
Cast: Julia Goldani Telles, Oliver Masucci, Frank Dillane, Daniel Betts, Armin Karima, Tobi Bamfeta, Jemima Rooper, Enzo Cilenti, Alexandra Daddario
Creator: Anja Marquadt
Premieres Sunday, May 2, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz