There’s little point in comparing Showtime’s “American Gigolo” with the cult film of the same name — the new series borrows the basic premise of Paul Schrader’s exceptionally stylish neo-noir, along with a few characters, then sets them adrift in a rote crime drama. Where the original “American Gigolo” captured the excess of the 1980s while presenting a captivating portrait of loneliness, its supposed sequel struggles to find purpose or even settle on a tone in its first three episodes.
So, thank God and/or casting director Wendy O’Brien for placing Jon Bernthal, who’s already turned in one extraordinarily kinetic performance this year, at the center of this otherwise meandering murder mystery. The “We Own This City” actor leads the series as Julian Kaye, a sex worker who’s wrongfully convicted for murder, imprisoned for 15 years, and exonerated — all in the hourlong series premiere. This too recalls the film’s narrative, with some tweaks, but this Julian Kaye is distinct from Richard Gere’s character (and not just because there’s suddenly an “e” at the end of his last name). Bernthal’s Julian is much more obviously wounded; his life isn’t unraveling because of a cover-up, it’s long since come undone. Now he has to rebuild it, for what may actually be the second time.
If ever an actor was tasked with elevating the material, it’s Bernthal, who has to sift through multiple timelines and deaths (at least two of which are murders) to find the essence of his character. That would be an undertaking for any role, but “American Gigolo” hampers its star by jumping back and forth from the present day, where Julian is pondering a return to sex work, and the past, where he’s just fallen in love with Michelle Stratton (Gretchen Mol). Instead of being poignant or even revealing, the flashbacks are intrusive — they’re deployed so indiscriminately that they end up squandering what little momentum the story manages to gather.
But Bernthal still finds a way to deliver, even when the show around him underwhelms with its chopping pacing and by-the-numbers plotting. His Julian is a unique creation — a man who’s always known how to separate fantasy from reality. Like his predecessor, Julian acknowledges his talent for giving for pleasure, but refuses to be defined by it. These traits elicit disparate responses from the people around him; they fascinate his lover Michelle in the past, and enrage his would-be pimp Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré) in the present. Bernthal’s coiled physicality typically charges every scene he’s in, but here, it becomes more of a slumped stature, a clear sign of what Julian’s already endured.
Aside from an opening credits sequence that recreates the opening montage of Schrader’s film, Julian remains in that crouched, defensive mode for much of the three episodes screened for critics. And who can blame him — though he’s newly exonerated, it’s not long before he’s implicated in another investigation. There’s also the small matter of why he was framed 15 years ago, and by whom. He gets some help in that department from Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell, taking over for Hector Elizondo), who has a similar knack for being in the wrong place at the right time.
Multiple suspects emerge early on, as well as a questionable B-story about Michelle’s 15-year-old son that was probably intended to echo the trauma Julian experienced as a teen, but in execution, just comes across as sordid. The new “American Gigolo” is so concerned with building mystery upon mystery that it leaves the characterization entirely up to the cast. Mol sparks with Bernthal in flashbacks, but Michelle’s present-day storyline leaves her with little to do beyond looking agitated in a bad wig. It’d take at least one more episode for Richard Stratton (Leland Orser), a tech mogul, to rise to the level of a stock character.
“The Chi” performer Yolonda Ross has a small role as Julian’s landlord Lizzy, who initially takes greater issue with his past sex work than his murder conviction. But what looks like the start of a discussion about the ongoing stigmatization (and criminalization) of sex work is really just a minor obstacle on Julian’s path to starting over. The show doesn’t actually know what it wants to say about about the subject — it seems averse to any kind of glamorization, instead intent on drawing a straight line from childhood abuse to sex work.
That approach is at odds with the occasionally pulpy tone of the series, which is also considerably less hesitant about featuring other forms of violence. Here we have yet another crime drama that’s essentially driven by dead women, who are catalysts and complications in the stories of others, but not characters in their own right — at least, not in the first act of the season.
With seven episodes left unseen, there’s still plenty of opportunity for “American Gigolo” to develop into something much more compelling than a run-of-the-mill mystery thriller. Bernthal’s performance certainly provides a solid foundation. But it’s hard to tell if the show has anything meaningful to say about any of its storylines or themes, or if it even wants to. Perhaps the most positive assessment of the show in its early stages is also the most damning — it could really go anywhere from here.
New episodes of “American Gigolo” are available on demand and streaming on the Showtime app on Fridays, and air on Showtime on Sunday nights.