Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” remains one of the master filmmaker’s most underrated works, a fascinating examination of the profession of an escort that doesn’t feel remotely exploitative. In some ways, the Starz adaptation of that 2009 film has been even richer, particularly its excellent first season, which starred Riley Keough. Each season of “The Girlfriend Experience” has introduced new characters, connected only thematically to the subject matter introduced in the original film. The newest outing, premiering May 2nd on the premium cable network, digs into how advancements in technology are allowing people to predict human behavior in ways that could be only theorized before. Created by Anja Marquardt (“She’s Lost Control”) and executive produced by Soderbergh, this year’s story may be its most ambitious, even if it sometimes succumbs to overwriting and pretentious filmmaking choices in early episodes just before building up steam at the point Starz decided to stop sending episodes (so I can’t say how successfully it connects its many ideas). Having said that, it’s never boring, even if I’m not sure yet if I buy all of what it’s selling.
Julia Goldani Telles (“The Affair”) really centers the season—I believe she’s in every scene of the five episodes sent to press—as Iris, a neuroscience major who works at a high-powered tech company called NGM. The season opens with a VR meeting between Iris and an interviewer for The V, a high-priced escort service. From the beginning, connection is being defined in a different way than usual—an interview taking place between two people who aren’t actually sharing the same space. Her resume and confidence get her the job, but she still has to pass the test of a real client that night. Connection can’t be only virtual.
Iris gets the job, and immediately starts trying to distinguish her day life and night life, taking on a new name in the latter as Cassie, although the line starts to blur (doesn’t it always) when she realizes that her experiences as a “girlfriend” could be valuable to the technology she’s developing at NGM. She tells herself that she’s trying to make herself into a better partner for her valued clients, but she’s also using what she learns there, sometimes surreptitiously, to advance her tech and give her a leg up with her tech guru boss. She’s a user, but in a very specific, unique, modern way that gives the season a fresh narrative momentum. Escorts eventually learn things about their clients that the clients can’t express to anyone else. What do these things tell us about human nature? And how could a tech company use that knowledge for the next great advancement in A.I. or even predictive technology?
If it sounds like a lot for a half-hour drama, it sometimes feels like it is. This is a show that works more on a macro level—when one steps back to consider the whole picture—than on a micro one, where its often blank affect and sterile environments can feel a bit overly scripted. I’m not sure if I just got used to it, or if the writing loosened up a bit, but early dialogue has a habit of underlining Marquardt’s themes in a way that doesn’t sound organic. Too many of these people, including Iris/Cassie, sound like A.I. assistants already, speaking theme instead of developing character. And it doesn’t help that Marquardt leans way too heavily on a dreamy synth score that often sounds like something that would be playing in the expensive spas that Cassie’s clients visit.
Despite these flaws, the overall ambition of this season of “The Girlfriend Experience” is impossible to dismiss. It's probably nothing like what conservative detractors would expect it to be, often deconstructing the relationships between client and escort more than sensationalizing or fetishizing them. Iris is a young woman who believes her research in neuroscience has given her an edge in every aspect of her life because she understands people differently. She can pick up on the non-verbal cues that most of us miss, but she learns, even in just the half-season that I’ve seen, that there will always be something of a divide between our tech and our humanity. And anyone who thinks that bridge can be easily built and crossed is in for a shocking experience.
Five episodes screened for review.