Let’s cut to the chase: This is not your parents’ “American Gigolo.”
Showtime’s dark series shares a name, the Blondie theme song and some characters with the 1980 film that launched Richard Gere’s career, but the eight-part television adaptation, about a high-end male escort who’s framed for murder, is nothing like the plush original from director Paul Schrader. Those looking for a loyal retelling of the blockbuster, or even a kitschy version of the cocaine-fueled, Armani-suited original will surely be crushed by the gritty, contemporary realism of this revision.
Yet the “American Gigolo” of 2022 holds its own as an engrossing murder mystery that plays out across present-day Los Angeles and over a series of flashbacks to the late 1990s and early 2000s. The pilot introduces us to former gigolo Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal) when he’s suddenly exonerated of wrongful murder charges after serving 15 years in prison. He’s now a tattooed, weathered hard case who somehow managed to maintain his Adonis-like body in lockup. He’d like to put his past behind him, but when he’s caught up in a conspiracy that’s connected to the old homicide, he’s thrust back into the fray.
Bernthal embraces the role of a decidedly rougher Kaye than his predecessor, Kay (the addition of an “e” to the new protagonist’s name is not part of the new mystery, but it should be). Though beefy and ripped, he’s also surprisingly convincing as a traumatized, near-broken man who‘s never had control over his own life. His vulnerability is center stage in the opening moments of the pilot, where he’s shown in a holding cell, accused of murder, sobbing like a child and crying out that he’s scared. He is believable, even though we know nothing about his background yet. His helplessness is contrasted against the steely resolve of Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell), turning the male/female power dynamic on its head at the outset of the show.
The theme continues in a series of flashbacks that reveal Kaye’s bleak origins as a poor kid from a California desert community whose mother pimped him out to pay the rent, then sold him to a Los Angeles madam. She brings him to L.A., where he’s groomed with other young men and women at a seaside mansion to be sex workers for the wealthy set. Kaye evolves from a desert rat to a well-groomed, charismatic escort. He’s charming arm candy in public and an attentive sex machine in bed, and it’s this period of his life that provides the flashier aspects of the series: convertibles, swanky clubs, orgiastic Malibu parties.
Post-prison is another story. Kaye tries to lead a “normal” life as a dishwasher in a Venice beach café, a job that miraculously pays enough to cover the rent for his nearby single apartment, but the bodies keep piling up around him. His former flame (Gretchen Mol), now a rich, Valium-addicted housewife, becomes entangled in the mess.
The sex is graphic and seedy in the hourlong drama, and that revision to the original story has already bothered some critics. But those uncomfortable, degrading or even violent incidents have a purpose: They reveal the circumstances and trauma that made Kaye the damaged adult he is today. There’s also an argument to be had that the film glamorized sex work, or at least retooled the reality of the profession for a gluttonous decade. Still, the show has some fun with musical throwbacks to the original: In addition to the use of Blondie’s “Call Me” against the opening credits, each episode is named after a 1980s song by the artist.
“American Gigolo’s” biggest flaw is that it jumps off a beloved movie, and for some, that may be too much to overcome. But the series should be given a chance. It’s a solid whodunit, with a magnetic lead and a modern awareness of L.A.’s sleazy underbelly.
When: Sunday, 9 p.m.
Streaming: Amazon Prime, anytime starting Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)