Showtime’s American Gigolo lacks some of the style and sexiness of Schrader’s original, but Bernthal might be good enough to pull the material up to his level.
This recap of Showtime’s American Gigolo season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
The selling point of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo was never the murder mystery. I didn’t think I had to tell anyone that since the movie has become such an iconic, sexy, and stylish time capsule for a specific slice of 80s American hedonism, the point should be obvious. And yet it was missed completely by David Hollander (Ray Donovan), the writer and director of the Showtime adaptation, which reimagines the mystery as a redemptive revenge arc and the characters as broken products of trauma, abuse, and exploitation.
American Gigolo season 1, episode 1 recap
Schrader’s movie ends with Lauren Hutton’s Michelle exonerating Richard Gere’s male escort Julian Kaye at the expense of her marriage and reputation; this ten-part series begins by showing what might have happened had Kaye instead been left to languish in prison for 15 years for a crime he didn’t commit. We’re partly introduced to this version of Julian, now played by Jon Bernthal, in a slick montage highlighting his various high-class conquests, but we don’t spend any real time with him until he wakes up looking like a keto Danny Trejo, complete with a sinewy physique, prison tats, and a fetching handlebar moustache.
Julian is in prison for the murder of one of his clients. He supposedly slit the throat of a woman he was sleeping with, though he can’t remember the evening at all and is pretty – but not totally – sure he didn’t do it. A decade and a half after pushing him to confess, Detective Joan Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell) doesn’t think he did it either, so she turns up at the prison to tell him that a contract killer on his deathbed with brain cancer confessed to that crime, among others, and DNA evidence proves he did it. Julian is suddenly free with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no idea who framed him in the first place.
Initially, Julian reclaims his birth name of John and returns to the trailer park where his neighbor sexually abused him as a young teenager and from which his drug-addict mother sold him to a woman named Olga (Sandrine Holt). She claimed he was going to be a Hollywood star. Instead, he was groomed to be a sex worker. A lesser critic would insert a joke here about there being little difference between the two, but I like to think I’m better than that.
Either way, the pilot episode of American Gigolo spends an hour going over all this in three timelines, two accessed via flashbacks. As well as young Johnny, we also see adult Julian meeting and falling for Michelle (Gretchen Mol), the put-upon wife of a successful businessman, and present-day, morose John reconnecting with the dregs of his old life, including his best friend Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) and Olga’s nakedly psychotic niece, Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré), whom Julian first met as a little girl who promised she would one day own him –and might have been right.
If the original American Gigolo was a kind of sexual fantasia, this version is more of a cautionary tale. The fact it suggests sex work is almost exclusively an outgrowth of trauma and exploitation won’t go down well with some, but here we are. I’m tempted to believe that the grim backstory is more an excuse to give Bernthal, one of the most underrated actors working today, more material to chew through. Almost always a tough guy, I’ve never quite bought him as a lover, but here he lets a surprising intimacy slip through the cracks in his stoic façade. He’s still at his best when he’s really selling all his pain and upset, but that prime Richard Gere sexual charisma is there too.
Come to think of it, a lot of the original film’s iconic elements are still here, such as the vintage convertible and Blondie’s “Call Me”, but they seem like minor concessions to a nostalgia that the rest of the show doesn’t really have. There’s no reason for this Julian to be driving around in that car other than it’s the one the earlier version of Julian drove. The superficiality of the callbacks makes me wish they weren’t there, but as yet they’re not exactly a deal-breaker. However, the foregrounding of the murder mystery and the stripping away of all the glitz and glamour does threaten to reduce American Gigolo to a tawdry crime show without any of the enduring style that made its predecessor such a classic. Time will tell in that regard. The premiere ends with Julian being led back to his old life by the suggestion that “The Queen”, aka Olga, might have set him up in the first place, while his attempts to reconnect with Michelle are thwarted by what seems like an ill-advised subplot about her teenage son Colin – Colin?! – having a relationship with his thirty-something teacher. That’s enough to be going on with for now.