‘American Gigolo’ Makes Jon Bernthal Into a Bad Date: TV Review

With its pulsing burble of Blondie music and its chilly aesthetic, the 1980 Paul Schrader film “American Gigolo” is a showpiece of what would soon be the Reagan decade. Some 42 years later, a TV adaptation feels lost in time, and searching for an argument for its existence.

Starring Jon Bernthal and with a pilot written and directed by “Ray Donovan’s” David Hollander (whose ties to Paramount Television Studios were severed during production), “American Gigolo” is lead-footed, and prurient rather than hot.

And Bernthal seems at sea here, an unusual look for a star whose coiled charisma has elsewhere served him well. His Julian Kaye — whose name is shared with Richard Gere’s character in Schrader’s movie — emerges from a 15-year sentence we’re told happened about a decade and a half ago, but nothing about Julian’s world feels of the present day, or of Earth. Julian, we understand, was wrongfully convicted; Rosie O’Donnell’s Detective Sunday is attempting to crack the case of what really happenned, while a swirling remembered attraction between Julian and Gretchen Mol’s Michelle threatens Julian’s chances at finding a post-prison equilibrium.

Perhaps because of the dispatching of Hollander (with Nikki Toscano eventually serving as the showrunner), there seems little defining vision here. O’Donnell, for instance, is a fine performer (and one we have been lucky to see more of lately), but she is a poor match for the anomic and glum energy Bernthal is giving off. The story — with flashbacks featuring Gabriel LaBelle as a younger version of Julian and Melora Walters as his mother — tends to mistake darkness for insight. And the use of “Call Me” as a theme song seems less like homage than like an attempt to recapture 1980s sleaze, in the absence of any other governing aesthetic.

But there’s so much that could be done with this present moment! In its first three episodes, this show’s analysis of its subject stops at acknowledging that sex work exists, and then ogling its subjects’ bodies. (In this flat depiction of sexuality, at least, it recalls the cold-blooded erotic thrillers of the “Body Double” era, if maybe only accidentally.) The treatment of sex as just another game the wealthy play is hardly novel, and its dispassionate look at the marketplace of sex has been done before. Notably, Starz’ “The Girlfriend Experience,” itself a remake of a movie, took on the story of a sex worker and their entanglements, but situated that story within an utterly contemporary framework, one in which digital surveillance and the broken attention span of the modern worker presented new and surprisingly sticky challenges..

This “Gigolo” doesn’t make that argument for its own revival, or any. Its case for itself is the promise of a glimpse of the Bernthal torso — impressive enough, but a sad thing when stripped of the actor’s usual edgy brio. Here, he seems directed towards a sorrow for which the rest of the show compensates, amping up the intensity of the couplings and the loopiness of the drama to make us feel something more than a disconnected kind of lust. But, at least in the show’s early going, the character is neither knowable nor possessed of the tingly charge of unknowability. Sadly, he’s just a boring date.

“American Gigolo’s” first episode will launch on streaming on Friday, September 9, and air on Showtime at 9 p.m. E.T. on Sunday, September 11.

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