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The Girlfriend Experience

SXSW Review The Girlfriend Experience Season 3- A Stylish Walk Through A Data Mine Field

STARZ’s third season of The Girlfriend Experience which premiered at SXSW features a whole new story, a slick new look, and a compelling hook.

The first two seasons of The Girlfriend Experience were smart and sensual. Season 3 looks to eclipse both seasons by mixing the hard and soft science of data mining, prediction software, and sexual prowess. This is the first season not to be written or directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. The first two seasons tonally and visually look strikingly different while still pulling from the same central themes. The anthology series reinvents itself every season, and this one is no different. Season 3 creator Anja Marquardt takes the same general thesis but runs it through a high-tech algorithm that is as geek chic sexy as it gets.

Marquardt has developed a uniquely glossy story divergent from the first two seasons but complementary to the series as a whole. Iris, who is going by Cassie for her nighttime job, leads two lives. One is intended to grow her brain and bank account, while the other is used to provide data for her passion, predictive algorithms, and biological predictors. She needs the income from both to pay for her father, who is seeing the first devastating vestiges of Alzheimer’s.

If you watched from the beginning of the series, you know this is a naughty little show with enough sex for the mommy porn crowd yet a surprisingly pointed message. Sex workers aren’t vilified. Rather they are humanized in an accessible way that is palatable for the general masses. There is an honesty about The Girlfriend Experience that has been present in all three seasons. Season 1 and 2 took the approach of normalizing sex work while pulling back the veil of hypocrisy in so-called legitimate work. Season 3 takes it a step further in showing that good and evil don’t care about societal norms.

The newest season couples sexual independence with the intriguing idea of quantifiable lust without the hand-wringing dread of a Black Mirror story. The Girlfriend Experience Season 3 feels like a tomorrow that is here today. We aren’t watching some future version of the world that can predict attraction but watching it be built and what the ethics of that would look like. It sounds very dry and technical and maybe it would be if not overlaid with the intense white-hot appeal of Julia Goldani Telles who plays our scientist by day and call girl by night.

Iris(Telles) uses her nighttime activities to bolster her daytime studies. To her, the dates she is with are subjects to learn from and test hypotheses. They offer her the opportunity to observe subjects closely and run real-time tests. Her daytime work puts too many barriers between her and the data to be useful. Iris is an intensely compartmentalized person. She has no choice. She was lured to London to work for a tech company that describes itself as a human desire company.

Her new employer wants to use her unique skills to develop predictive software. That software could translate what a person truly needs with what they say they want. The company posits what people need and what they think they want are vastly different. Give them what they need even if it is a little bad, and they will be customers for life. If it sounds a little dubious, it is. NGM doesn’t know precisely what they will turn the app into, but they know big money can be had.

The CEO of NGM is a New Age tech guru full of himself and full of the ridiculous woke speak of someone who talks the talk but has no idea how to walk the walk. He is the kind of tech dude you expect to throw platitudes as often as payoffs when he gets a little too zealous with his data mining. The settings are as futuristic and hard as any future-leaning world. The hive mind of the analytical R and D company gives way to actual hive visuals of ceilings and walls that both look and feel as oppressive as they are efficient.

Iris’ other employer, the enigmatic The V books, dates via a digitized voice across the phone lines. She is sent on meticulously curated dates where she can further her study of desire. In Season 3, Iris uses her secondary job to benefit her work at NGM. Both companies seem more secretive than necessary. Who is hiding what and why? Both V and NGM seem like they would be willing to sell everything, including Iris herself, for the right price. Are they both morally bankrupt, or are neither? I’m more than anxious to find out, though.

Visually the series is gorgeous. Industrial, professional spaces are hyper-lit and cleansed within an inch of their lives. The new COVID reality we live in means less human debris, and in a series like this, that impersonal quality means everything feels a little colder. Her after-hour exploits, on the other hand, are richly layered. Jewel tones pop in muted restaurants. Beautiful textures highlight just how different Iris’ two lives are while simultaneously showing the superficiality of both. Marquardt’s direction adeptly manipulates the viewer as easily as Iris does her subjects.

The sexual transactions, although steamy, are as sterile as the white on white locations and hyper-clean work environments. Cassie is a chameleonic Lolita who can be anything and everything you want, even without knowing what you actually want. All of this by fluidly shifting gears mentally while maintaining her icy reserve. There is a placid calmness that never slips, but you just know it holds a tsunami of emotions. Telles employs the subtlest of cadences in her conversational tones to distinguish the two sides of her life.

We don’t know what kind of big swings Marquardt is going for yet. In the small sample size shown(two episodes often), there are more than enough questions about the two companies Iris works for, both of which could be as shadowy as they appear. Iris presents as reasonably straightforward, but there is an air of mystery about her that could unleash a torrent of secrets. What happens when and if her two lives converge?

The Girlfriend Experience has always been about more than just sex. It’s about what motivates its leading ladies and their often complicated rationale. Iris is a complex, nuanced woman who uses her sexuality as a tool to inform and benefit her life. Where that journey takes her, we don’t know yet. I’ve seen more than enough to want to take the ride. Season 3 of The Girlfriend Experience premieres on STARZ on May 2nd, 2021.

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