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All the Streaming Companies Are Consolidating and Yet, Starz Persists

Believe it or not, there is a premium cable network in 2021 that hasn’t been gobbled up by a media giant. That doesn’t mean its shows aren’t notable.

Starz/Ringer illustration

The big news in entertainment this week is all about mergers. There’s the shotgun wedding of WarnerMedia and Discovery, Inc., two media giants that are themselves the results of massive acquisitions. (Most recently, AT&T bought Time Warner in 2018, the same year Discovery subsumed Scripps Networks.) As if that weren’t enough to fill the papers’ business sections, there are also reports that Amazon is in talks to acquire film studio MGM for around $9 billion, a figure that would be a lot more eye-popping if the Warner-Discovery pact weren’t valued at around $43 billion.

These big names and bigger numbers are all acting on a simple assumption: that joining forces is the only way to compete in a landscape dominated by jacks-of-most-trades like Netflix and Disney. But even as the conversation revolves around legacy giants like ViacomCBS, trillion-dollar entities like Apple, and the Streaming Wars between them, some relatively stand-alone options remain.

Take Starz, a network that occupies an increasingly unusual space among its premium cable peers. The channel exists under the umbrella of Lionsgate, a film studio and production outfit that has its offshoots and subsidiaries—among them Summit Entertainment and a majority stake in management company 3 Arts—but still ranks far smaller than, say, the almighty Walt Disney Company. By contrast, HBO is owned by WarnerMedia and has become the somewhat confusing namesake of HBO Max. Showtime is owned by ViacomCBS and available for a bundled discount with the newly launched Paramount+. And following the merger of Disney and Fox’s entertainment assets in 2019, FX has been partly transformed into FX on Hulu, a shingle of the streaming service that, like Showtime, is also available as part of a relatively cheap bundle marketed at cultural omnivores.

Notably, Starz lacks an in-house streaming partner to distribute its original and acquired programming, a structural reality that may have factored into Sony’s decision not to renew its licensing deal with the network for its recent theatrical releases, instead moving over to Netflix starting in 2022. (Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch has since argued Sony’s films weren’t actually worth the money it would’ve taken to keep them around, an undisclosed amount Variety has called a “record-setting price tag.”)

This state of affairs can make it difficult for critics to evangelize Starz’s noteworthy shows, of which there are plenty. The latest is Run the World, a half-hour comedy whose Sunday premiere takes the familiar template of four 30-something best friends into a less familiar setting: Harlem—specifically, the gentrified-but-still-vibrant version of it where an advertising executive might purchase a condo. (The opening scene takes place at the restaurant Red Rooster; celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.) Sex and the City comes up quickly and naturally, with one character wistfully referring to an ex as her “Big,” as in “Mr.” But there are other influences at play. Executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser created Living Single, the ’90s Fox sitcom often credited as Friends before Friends. (It’s now available to stream on Hulu.) Other antecedents lie closer to home.

Run the World follows on the success of P-Valley, the strip club drama that quickly established itself as one of 2020’s best shows. Like Run the World, P-Valley is firmly anchored by its sense of place, with the Mississippi Delta and exurban Memphis subbing in for uptown Manhattan. But in the larger context of TV, the shows stand out as being made for and by Black women. Run the World’s central foursome cemented their bond at Atlanta’s historically Black women’s college Spelman, where series creator Leigh Davenport attended undergrad.

Within Starz’s schedule, Run the World and P-Valley are a natural complement to Power, the long-running hit crime show now succeeded by sequel series Power Book II: Ghost, a nascent attempt at a “Power Universe” from creator Courtney A. Kemp and executive producer 50 Cent. All three are part of a concerted, often successful effort to target younger, more diverse audiences, often Black women in particular. But Run the World is balanced internally as well. Though there’s slight favor toward Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), a memoirist turned blogger for the fictional Hot Tea Digest—the de facto Carrie of the group—no one character can lay claim to the title of protagonist. Renee (Bresha Webb), the advertising executive, negotiates an amicable (for now) divorce while banker Whitney (Amber Stevens West) plans a wedding and fights off cold feet. Grad student Sondi (Corbin Reid) lives with an older boyfriend who happens to be her dissertation advisor. The four have serious problems, but they’re typically discussed in opulent settings like a hotel pool or a mood-lit bar. Just because a playbook is well worn doesn’t mean there can’t be joy in execution.

Over its eight-episode first season, Run the World grows from feeling slightly forced in its staged debates over porn, freezing eggs, and dating white guys to a more organic portrait of a friend group in flux. It’s a quick transition that leaves the viewer wanting more, in a good way; ideally, a second volume would allow the show to carve out more territory in a niche crowded with the likes of Insecure, Girls, The Bold Type, and Broad City.

Elsewhere on Starz, a very different show about sex and femininity shows the possibility of latter-season growth. The third chapter of The Girlfriend Experience has the same structure as the first two: a stand-alone story about a high-end sex worker, helmed by an auteur with a background in independent film rather than TV. This time, German filmmaker Anja Marquardt (She’s Lost Control) takes over for Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz in the director’s chair, a revolving role overseen by executive producer Steven Soderbergh. (The anthology series is named for and interprets Soderbergh’s 2009 film.) Debuting earlier this month, Season 3 takes the action overseas, where college dropout Iris (Julia Goldani Telles) goes to work for a mysterious London tech company specializing in artificial intelligence. Iris dabbles in VR camming and eventually starts to work as an IRL escort, a side hustle she apparently sees more as research for her day job.

Four years after the show’s bifurcated sophomore season, the latest volume of The Girlfriend Experience continues one of the boldest ongoing experiments on TV. It’s now typical for indie directors like Kerrigan, Seimetz, or the late Lynn Shelton to toggle between media, but less common for their TV efforts to be as unapologetically cerebral or explicit as The Girlfriend Experience. Across all three installments and all four stories, The Girlfriend Experience has always explored the connection between escorting and other forms of white-collar work, from law to politics. In tech, Season 3 finds an especially resonant field, one that already intersects with sex, love, and dating more than most professions. Iris and her colleagues on both jobs can get a little stoner-philosophical about what it means to simulate desire, but The Girlfriend Experience always avoids the other extreme of sensationalizing sex for pay. “Better clinical than lurid” could be the series’ motto.

Glacial in pacing, cool in palette, The Girlfriend Experience would likely feel out of place on just about any platform. But on the same network as Outlander, a show that’s earned headlines for sex that’s alternately groundbreaking and outright silly—and P-Valley, set on the opposite end of sex work’s class spectrum—The Girlfriend Experience at least feels like part of a continuum. Starz’s lack of an online distributor outside its own dedicated app can maroon its better projects from a larger conversation. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth seeking out.