The Girlfriend Experience is possibly the best-kept secret on TV right now – it's actually a post-William Gibson Cyberpunk drama. And nobody has noticed because nobody seems to be watching this show. In case you didn't know, The Girlfriend Experience began life as an experimental low-budget movie made by Steven Soderbergh starring Sasha Grey as a call girl in a workplace drama about sex work. It was later pitched to Starz as an anthology series with each season featuring a completely different story and cast, with indie filmmakers in charge of their stories.
The first 2 seasons featured stories by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Siemetz. Season 3 stars Julia Goldani Telles as a young neuroscientist working for a startup that's developing a behavioral AI becomes a call girl partly to escape the drama of her life – her father is deteriorating from Alzheimer's – and to secretly gather behavioral data about men's emotional and sexual responses to use as her research. As one usually does in this situation, I suppose.
The Girlfriend Experience still follows the conventions and tropes that the call girl genre seems to insist on. These seem to be set in stone:
– Heroine finds vicarious thrill posing as a different person as she does sex work.
– Heroine pushes boundaries and risks her identity being exposed.
– Existential themes of identity, a woman's autonomy and agency abound
– Heroine comes out at the end changed forever.
All 3 seasons of the show follow these conventions. You could argue that this show has always been a form of Science Fiction since any sex worker from real life will tell you how unrealistic and glammed up it is. The show uses sex to sell itself though its sex scenes are often cold, clinical, and unerotic since it uses that as sugar coating to sell the story it really wants to tell each season. This season, created by Anja Marquardt, is an outright feminist cyberpunk drama with mild thriller elements.
It's not about the heroine's life in danger, but her agency, identity, perhaps her soul, and definitely her data, the latter being the Cyberpunk part. The tech startup she works for is every bit as insidious and potentially evil as Facebook. And there's a lot of VR. Nothing signals Science Fiction like VR. It's utterly Science Fiction, but Starz has done zero to hype or market this show one way or another. There's a lot of dense discussion throughout the season about AI, data sets, technical and legal discussions about the nature of human behavior, reaction, and whether AI can be taught to recognize and even replicate it. The heart of Science Fiction stories is the question "What makes us human?"
The Girlfriend Experience Season 3 uses the prism of sex work and a genre intended to titillate its audience to explore serious themes you usually only find in hardcore Science Fiction. The season has offered a more subtle and considered Science Fiction tale than HBO's Westworld has been. The big moments are emotional, found in exchanges between Iris and the person she's with, not gunfights and explosions. It's not the sex that's shocking here, it's the dangers of humans losing control of their minds, their identities, their data, and their lives. This show would be nominated for the Hugo Award and the Saturn Award if anyone in the Science Fiction world noticed.
Starz is making the most interesting, unexpected, and innovative shows right now, but nobody knows they exist because of a lack of marketing and advertising. But that's a discussion for another time.
The Girlfriend Experience is now on Starz.
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