Life Goes on Without Me – American Gigolo (2022) Series Premiere

The new Showtime drama series American Gigolo is technically neither a remake nor a sequel to the 1980 film by Paul Schrader, yet almost bends over backwards to tie itself to that movie in ways that don’t always make sense. With just one episode to judge by, I’m not exactly sure what the show wants to be.

No, that’s not quite correct. It’s pretty clear that the series wants to be a prestige TV drama about serious, adult subject matter (including sex work, murder, and the many failures of the criminal justice system) that piggybacks off the reputation of a famous movie for name recognition value and some misguided notions of fan-service. Does that make it a bad show? Not necessarily, but nor would I call it a great one, so far.

Title:American Gigolo
Episode:1.01 – Pilot
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2022
Watched On: Showtime

At first glance, the new American Gigolo seems to present itself as a sequel that tells us what happened to the main character a couple decades after the original movie. Someone who hasn’t seen the film in a long while or only knows it by reputation could be forgiven for assuming that’s the case. However, the dates don’t line up at all and the narrative is a hodgepodge of some details that correlate very closely to the original and others that diverge from it wildly.

If the series is meant to be either a total reboot with a fresh take on the story, or a brand new story set in the same milieu of male prostitution, why does it reference back to the plot of the film and pick up afterwards, rather than retell it entirely? Why style star John Bernthal with Richard Gere’s exact haircut from 1980? Why have him drive a classic 1980s convertible (though, notably, a different make and model than Gere drove)? Why prominently feature the movie’s theme song (Blondie’s “Call Me”) on the soundtrack of the pilot episode? Because no part of this series is set in or connects directly to the 1980s, I fail to understand the purpose of all these callbacks to the era and to the film. Are they purely intended as fan-service for a 42-year-old movie that, let’s be honest, left the pop culture consciousness a long time ago? American Gigolo isn’t exactly Star Wars. It doesn’t have an obsessive fan-base clamoring for shout-outs to their favorite scenes.

Even aside from the time shift, the show outright ignores the ending to the movie and pretends it had a different outcome. In this version, protagonist Julian Kaye has spent 15 years in prison for the murder of one of his clients. During that time, he’d been a model prisoner. He does what he’s told, and he tries to be friendly to both the other inmates and to the guards. He’s resigned himself to his fate and wants to serve his time without making trouble for himself.

Unexpectedly, Julian receives a visit from the police detective who arrested him (Rosie O’Donnell). She’s come to tell him in person that another man – a professional contract killer now on his deathbed – has confessed to the murder. His story lines up with the evidence. Julian’s conviction has been vacated and his sentence ends effective immediately.

Now a free man, Julian is dumped back into a society that has changed a great deal in his absence, and that he may not be equipped to navigate. He no longer has access to the money or the luxuries of his former life. The woman he’d fallen in love with (Gretchen Mol) has a very complicated life of her own and can’t afford to bring him back into it. Although the idea of going back into the escort business seems ridiculous, he finds himself drawn that way for one very compelling reason – to find out who framed him.

Interspersed with this are a number of flashbacks to Julian’s childhood, to his career as a gigolo, and to the night of the murder. The pilot episode jumps around in time repeatedly while adding a lot of new backstory that wasn’t in the original movie, such as details of how Julian’s trailer trash mother (Melora Walters) sold him into whoring as a young teen. It also introduces the conceit that Julian suffers from violent episodes and memory issues, which left him unsure for all his time in prison about whether he actually did the crime or not. Bernthal’s performance involves quite a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth as he struggles with his personal demons.

Undoubtedly, the intent of all this new material is to add some depth and complexity to the story. However, Paul Schrader’s original version of Julian was a deliberately uncomplicated and vacuous character, all the better for his clients to project their fantasies onto him. Making us empathize with this version kind of defeats the point.

It doesn’t help that Jon Bernthal feels miscast. Hairdo excepted, he’s just not as pretty as Richard Gere was. While Bernthal has a certain rugged handsomeness of his own, it’s a much harder, more intense type of appeal. He always looks about three seconds away from punching somebody in the face. I know some women that sort of thing very much works for, but I have a hard time buying him as a successful male escort among a posh Beverly Hills clientele – especially in the current-day timeline where his body is covered in prison tattoos.

I’d be perfectly happy to ignore the old film completely and judge the TV series solely on its own merits, if only the show didn’t make such a point of throwing references to the movie in viewers’ faces. As it stands, the countless “Hey, do you remember this part?” callbacks mixed with huge changes to the characters and plot create an uncomfortable Uncanny Valley effect. The show is called American Gigolo, and wants you to believe that it’s a continuation of American Gigolo, but it’s not the same American Gigolo at all. What’s the point of that? Why not call it something else and drop all the unnecessary fan-service?

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