As an anthology series, Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience installs new casts and storylines each season, setting up a new protagonist and the particular perils she faces given her line of work. What doesn’t change is the exploration of transactional relationships, how emotion factors into every decision, and how those decisions lead to unforeseen consequences, over and over.
The beauty of presenting this particular series as an anthology is that it truly is a new experience every time out. It’s no small task to establish a new world, complete with compelling characters, in a familiar, if engrossing, situation. But in season three, The Girlfriend Experience levels up, an appropriate term given the role technology plays in the narrative. In fact, this sentiment is expressed early on in the story in a unique manner as Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), an American Ph.D. student studying neuroscience, decides to ditch her classes to work for a start-up in London. By taking on a fancy new job and a shiny new persona in a foreign land, as well as making her foray into being an escort, Iris seems to have massively leveled up her life.
The very nature of what’s considered “the girlfriend experience” is that the encounter between the parties is not just about sex, but also about the ways the escort can make the client feel emotionally satisfied. This emotional aspect, not the sex or the money, is actually the major element that draws Iris into being an escort, which sets her apart from the show’s previous protagonists from the get-go. In her day job, she works to find ways to bolster artificial intelligence, while her nighttime clients provide her with the type of personal interaction that she needs to truly understand wants and desires. Iris spends her afternoons reviewing predictive analysis and her evenings studying human behavior, with the goal of quantifying emotions.
She sets her sights on teaching A.I. how to interact with humans at their most impulsive, their most vulnerable. But when she estimates there to be 34,000 different human emotions, she realizes that all of this is not something that can be deciphered quickly. To gain input, Iris uses her experiences with her clients by downloading and analyzing notes she’s made about the emotional exchange during each encounter. While the discovery of her side-hustle as a high-end call girl would seem to be the most perilous part of Iris’ engagement in the lifestyle, it’s actually the fact that she’s in effect using her clients for unauthorized research that’s exceedingly more fraught with danger. If discovered, she could lose both her day job and her night job, and face grave consequences.
But soon, Iris’ real motivation for gathering reams of data about human behavior is revealed. She’s driven by the fact that her father has Alzheimer’s. The realization that Iris may suffer the same fate makes it easier understand her urgent quest to dissect human emotion and all its subtleties—not at some future time, but right now.
This makes for an intriguing narrative, and the glossiness of the tech world is used to great effect, especially in contrast to the graininess of Iris’ personal life. But elsewhere, The Girlfriend Experience applies a much more heavy-handed touch. Iris wears glasses during the day—possibly because she needs them, or because she likes wearing a signifier of her intellect—but never wears them at night. Her wardrobe always pointedly signals her shift from “day job” to “night job.” Maybe all of this is to separate “Day Iris” from “Night Iris” so that the two personas feel entirely different, but at times the connection is muddled by the drastic change in Iris’ outward appearance, as well as the “characters” she puts on, one with a decidedly bad accent.
When The Girlfriend Experience turns to Iris’ think tank employer, the approach is similarly unsubtle. The start-up has no concrete direction, but wants its employees to dissect themselves and the world they live in to make remarkable discoveries about life. This is very much the theme of the entire season—the personal becomes work product and vice versa—but rather than let that information seep in, the show broadcasts it via clunky dialogue: “Nobody really knows what’s going on in someone’s head.” “Instinct is an illusion.” “Don’t let your imagination be limited by what’s available.” Many of these statements are made when discussing how best to teach A.I. to mimic all facets of human awareness, expression and contact, so these proclamations doesn’t seem totally out of place. But in spelling out how it’s to be interpreted, the series betrays a lack of confidence.
The Girlfriend Experience season three may be a bit too moody or rely too heavily on tech talk, or just not feature enough sex, for viewers (let alone fans of the show). But what this particular narrative does do well is show Iris’ use of each encounter to carefully study human emotion in a way that’s not been seen before—by trying to quantify desire and satisfaction between a client who’s paying for an intimate relationship with a provider, and then using those calculations to try to teach a computer to understand passion and reaction. That’s innovation that would please the most buzzword-spouting tech CEO.