Remember that internet meme from a few years ago—”what I ordered versus what I got”—about the differences between how good something looks when you order it online and how crappy it is once it’s actually in your house? In many ways, Showtime’s new series American Gigolo is that meme in televisual form. A drama whose trailers promise a sexy, buzzy thriller starring a hot, frequently shirtless Jon Bernthal as a hustler roguishly seducing an array of different women, but that ultimately delivers a weirdly meandering and, worse, deeply boring mess that often feels like nothing so much as three different series fighting under a blanket.
Based in the loosest possible sense on Paul Schrader’s classic neo-noir film of the same name, this version of American Gigolo puts a very 2020s bleak and gritty spin on the original’s story of excess and loneliness in the sun-dappled California sunshine. In this version of things, there are fewer cocaine binges and a lot more overt child trafficking, and though Blondie’s music still pops up in the soundtrack regularly, there’s nothing about this story that feels propulsive, transgressive, or even the slightest bit fun. Instead, American Gigolo turns out to be just another oh-so-familiar tale of murder, misogyny, and violence. And what’s worse, it barely even lets its star be hot, which was ostensibly the entire point of this enterprise.
The story begins with Bernthal’s Julian Kaye—now spelled with an e to differentiate him from the Richard Gere version, I guess—exonerated and released from prison after spending 15 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. A free man with no idea where he belongs, much of the first three episodes that were made available to screen for critics (out of a total of 10) follow his attempt to start a new life in a much-changed Los Angeles, peppered with what often feels like an endless stream of flashbacks that show us everything from snippets of his tragic childhood to dates with various clients over the course of his career.
Despite Julian’s seemingly very genuine desire to leave his old life behind, he can’t resist revisiting his past, tracking down the love of his life, Michelle (Gretchen Mol), and reconnecting with his BFF Lorenzo (Wayne Brady), who came up through the hustler ranks alongside him. Meanwhile, the no-nonsense Detective Sandy (Rosie O’Donnell) is desperately attempting to find the identity of whoever set Julian up, driven by some mix of grit, determination, and probable guilt over the fact that she encouraged an innocent man to confess that he wasn’t.
Sadly, the overarching mystery of who framed Julian, as well as a second, also extremely creepy subplot about Michelle’s teenage son Colin (Judah Mackey) and his wildly inappropriate relationship with his much-older teacher (Laura Liguori) both feel like conventional procedural stories that have little to say about any of the characters involved. (You can see most of this stuff handled with more care on Law and Order: SVU). O’Donnell’s turn as a dogged and foul-mouthed investigator is a series highlight, if only because she injects her scenes with some much-needed energy, and manages to be genuinely funny on occasion. But the series’ predictable feel—-is there anyone out there who doesn’t think Michelle’s son will somehow turn out to be Julian’s?—makes this all feel like a waste of time.
It’s also worth noting that, for a show called American Gigolo, this series has remarkably little interest in Julian’s career. Once apparently a coveted and successful hustler, that part of his life exists only in the occasional colorful flashback; and while his supposedly seductive history is well documented, it also sits uneasily next to the more stoic, closed-off version of the character we see now. The show also has almost nothing to say about modern sex work or the bizarre dynamics that exist between characters like Julian and Lorenzo, best friends who were essentially assigned to one another by their shared pimp as young boys.
What’s worse, the story raises complex issues of grooming and sexual abuse; as a boy, Julian is repeatedly raped by his neighbor before being essentially sold into prostitution by his own mother and taught the ins and outs of sexual pleasure by a much older madam—but the show isn’t particularly concerned with exploring how Julian feels about this obviously formative trauma, or even whether he’s fully aware of what really happened to him. (Let me put it this way: this backstory seems meant to shed a whole new and horrifying light on an early scene in which Julian counsels a fellow inmate begging for help against the cellmate who is constantly raping him—to just give him what he wants so he can’t take it. But thus far American Gigolo seems incapable of engineering this sort of depth on purpose.)
In truth, I wasn’t exactly expecting a lot from this show. From the rumored behind-the-scenes drama (showrunner David Hollander wrote and directed the first two episodes but left the series in the wake of misconduct allegations) to the fact that it’s never been clear why anyone thought we needed an American Gigolo sequel in the year of our lord 2022, I went into this basically assuming there would be little to recommend it beyond Bernthal, whose charismatic smoldering has been put to great use elsewhere. And, hey, the man is real easy on the eyes.
But American Gigolo can’t even allow us to enjoy its best asset; Bernthal is asked to do little more than look glum and spend a prodigious amount of time walking around various scenic locations staring off into the middle distance. He’s rarely allowed to be truly sexy, and much of his natural charisma is flattened by the mercilessly grim nature of the story. Honestly, most of the time you’ll find yourself wishing Julian would just put his shirt back on and get some therapy. Where was that in the trailers, hmmm?
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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