How ‘American Gigolo’ Showtime tears up the film’s template

Let’s get down to business: This isn’t your parents’ “American Gigolo.”

The gritty Showtime series shares a name, the Blondie theme song, and a few characters with the 1980 film that launched Richard Gere’s career, but the eight-episode television adaptation about a high-end male escort who is accused of murder is nothing like the plush original by director Paul Schrader. Those looking for a faithful retelling of the blockbuster, or even a cheesy Armani-suited version of the cocaine-fuelled original, are sure to be overwhelmed by the gritty, contemporary realism of this revamp.

But 2022’s “American Gigolo” holds its own as a gripping crime thriller set in modern-day Los Angeles and set in a series of flashbacks to the late 1990s and early 2000s. The pilot introduces us to former gigolo Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal) as he is suddenly acquitted of wrongful murder charges after serving 15 years in prison. He’s now a tattooed, weather-beaten hard case that somehow managed to keep his Adonis-like body in prison. He would like to put his past behind him, but when he becomes involved in a conspiracy linked to the ancient murder, he is thrown back into the fray.

Bernthal takes on the role of a decidedly rougher Kaye than his predecessor Kay (the addition of an “e” to the new protagonist’s name isn’t part of the new mystery, but it should be). Though beefy and muscular, he’s also surprisingly compelling as a traumatized, almost broken man who was never in control of his own life. His vulnerability takes center stage in the pilot’s opening moments, where he is shown in a holding cell, accused of murder, with a child sobbing and screaming that he is scared. He’s believable, even if we don’t know anything about his background yet. His helplessness contrasts with Detective Sunday’s (Rosie O’Donnell) steely determination, which reverses the male/female power dynamic early in the show.

Black and white photo of Richard Gere in a Giorgio Armani blazer in the 1980 film American Gigolo

(Courtesy of Giorgio Armani)

The theme continues in a series of flashbacks that reveal Kaye’s murky origins as a poor kid from a California desert community whose mother holds him to pay rent and then sells him to a madam in Los Angeles. She takes him to LA, where he and other young men and women train in a seaside villa to become sex workers for the wealthy. Kaye develops from a desert rat into a well-groomed, charismatic escort. Charming arm-hugger in public and perceptive sex machine in bed, it’s this segment of his life that offers the flashier aspects of the series: convertibles, swanky clubs, orgiastic Malibu parties.

After prison is a different story. Kaye tries to live a “normal” life washing dishes at a Venice beach cafe, a job that miraculously pays enough to pay the rent for his nearby singles apartment, but the bodies are piling up around him. His former flame (Gretchen Mol), now a wealthy housewife addicted to Valium, gets caught up in the mess.

The sex is graphic and seedy in the hour-long drama, and this overhaul of the original story has already bothered some critics. But these uncomfortable, humiliating, or even violent incidents have a purpose: They reveal the circumstances and trauma that shaped Kaye into the aggrieved adult he is today. There’s also an argument that the film glamorized sex work, or at least retooled the reality of the profession for a gluttonous decade. The show does have some fun, though, with musical throwbacks to the original: In addition to using Blondie’s “Call Me” against the opening credits, each episode is named after a song by the artist from the 1980s.

American Gigolo’s biggest flaw is that it ties into a beloved film, and for some that may be too much to get over. But you should give the series a chance. It’s a solid detective agency with a magnetic lead and a modern awareness of LA’s seedy underbelly.

‘American Gigolo’

Where: show time

When: Sunday, 9 p.m

Stream: Amazon Prime, anytime starting Sunday

Valuation: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17) How ‘American Gigolo’ Showtime tears up the film’s template

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