When Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo debuted in 1980, it launched Richard Gere into the sex symbol hall of fame. His character in the film, aloof and stylish young escort Julian, is a surprising choice for fantasy material given that the movie tells us nearly nothing about him, but maybe that’s what makes him sexy. Throughout Schrader’s film, viewers get the sense that there’s much more to Julian than his polished exterior and self-possessed attitude would indicate, but we’re never directly given the keys to his heart. Showtime’s new series, a sleek, seedy, and at times miscalculated neo-noir, is hell-bent on filling in the gaps in Julian’s story for better and worse.
The series serves simultaneously as a sequel, prequel, and reimagining of Schrader’s script. It picks up almost immediately, fifteen years after a murder charge put Julian (Jon Bernthal) away in prison. He’s exonerated thanks to new evidence and abruptly pushed back into the real world, where he must walk the straight and narrow even as bodies start suspiciously piling up around him yet again. His future and past are tied to a woman named Michelle (Gretchen Mol), but he also quickly reunites with past sex work colleagues Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) and Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré). Rosie O’Donnell, meanwhile, plays a hilariously blunt detective who’s at once among the best parts of the show and the most tonally out of place.
This is where things start to really differ from the source material. While most pre-release talk about the series has inevitably led back to Bernthal’s smolder, series creator David Hollander (Ray Donovan) seems to envision a moody version of Julian who’s been sapped of sexiness after decades of exploitation. The sex in this version of American Gigolo rarely feels fully consensual, and the show is more concerned with the character’s enduring trauma than with his autonomy. It begins fleshing out an origin story for Julian (Gabriel LaBelle plays him in flashback), then never really stops, piling on strange, borderline campy details about his extremely dramatic and sexually unhealthy upbringing.
There’s a shadowy neo-noir allure to the series that keeps its first three episodes engaging even as they head down these increasingly upsetting rabbit holes. The camera carries some dynamic, admittedly cinematic energy here, and Bernthal tries to carry the show the rest of the way with a performance that – in another reversal of the film – starts off emotionally naked before his Julian adds layers of cool detachment like parts of a three-piece suit. The actor himself is well-cast for the part, capable of turning his charm on and off like a switch, but American Gigolo weaves a story that doesn’t pause for titillation, instead growing so twisted that to merely thirst after Bernthal feels like a betrayal of the series’ uber-dark themes.
American Gigolo adorns itself with flourishes and details that both build up its world and make it sillier. There’s a woman pimp called “the Queen,” a little girl who innocently plays games in the middle of sex workers’ parties, and a mentally ill relative who triggers Julian’s teenaged odyssey into the unknown. There’s something striking about this dark underbelly, but it walks a fine line between intrigue and sleaze. Some vivid cinematography is a point in one column, while an over-reliance on repeating flashbacks and montages is a point in the other. Future episodes may reveal exactly what American Gigolo is capable of, but in the three available for review at the time of publication, it’s a murky and engaging but not wholly satisfying watch.
It also undercuts the original film’s steadily non-judgemental portrayal of sex work, in which Julian seemed to choose his own path for reasons of self-reliance and control rather than outside influence. American Gigolo digs into psychological underpinnings that are uncomfortable to look at straight on. What’s the link between sex and damage? Are our desires our own or endlessly shaped and manufactured? Can we ever be more than the sum of our childhood trauma? The meandering series is deeply interested in all of these questions, but it takes its time answering them, sidetracked often by murder and romance.
While Hollander’s spin on American Gigolo isn’t a resounding success, its first few episodes leave viewers with plenty to chew on. The show takes massive swings from its very first scene and challenges audiences’ own relationship with desire and agency along with Julian’s. Much of the TV landscape feels shallow in comparison to this show’s seemingly endless depths, and Bernthal anchors the exploration with a gutsy, layered performance. In the end, American Gigolo is an edgy, moody story that bleeds neo-noir style, all while the weight of some of its more bizarre narrative choices threatens to overwhelm it.
American Gigolo starring Jon Bernthal, debuts on Showtime on September 9. Watch the series trailer here.