For anyone who is exhausted by the male antihero, “American Gigolo,” on Showtime, is good news. Our main man, Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal), has not committed one selfish act in his sad life. He has been groomed, pimped, framed—you name it—and still he looks out on the site of his trials, the putrid vista of present-day Los Angeles, with moist eyes, conveying resignation. David Hollander, who developed the series, designed Julian as a martyr, sanctified by his misfortune, which has been dealt to him by a parade of conniving or selfish or stupid women. This project, a reboot of the 1980 movie of the same name, is abysmal, but it is not inert. It thrums with a militancy, in its promotion of the orthodoxies of our era. It is unabashedly anti-pleasure, pro-gender essentialism.
A few months ago, on his amazing Facebook page, Paul Schrader, the writer and director of the original “American Gigolo,” explained that he was totally uninvolved in the new series, and disavowed it. Paramount, which owned the rights to the property, had called him, expressing interest in a remake. “I replied that I thought it was a terrible idea,” Schrader wrote. “Times had changed, internet porn had redefined male sex work, viruses, etc. I couldn’t imagine Julian Kay working a Hen Party.”
The original Julian Kay, as embodied by Richard Gere, was a beautiful and wretched creature who inaugurated the fixations of a decade. The character, a male escort, insinuated himself into the élite class by tending to its bored and neglected wives, only to discover that, when the ranks closed, his place among them was not real.
Schrader’s “American Gigolo” was a fashion film, first and foremost. Gere was dressed almost exclusively by Giorgio Armani. Which designer would be chosen to dress our generation’s exemplar striver, to translate his hauteur and his anguish to silhouettes? Raul Lopez at Luar? Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta? Times have changed indeed, and there is no effort, in this reboot, to do anything like updating by way of wardrobe. Offensively, the suits are standard costume fare. The series is neither a clever reimagining of the original “American Gigolo” nor a faithful tribute. (Don’t let the opening credits, which are set to Blondie’s “Call Me,” fool you.) Julian Kay, now Julian Kaye, is unrecognizable—instead of a striver, he is a victim.
My tenuous excitement for the series, when it was first announced, hinged on Jon Bernthal—his face, specifically. It looks the way his name sounds. His nose is Roman; his mouth wanes. His beauty is coarse and a little wrong, and the combination is thrilling. The show punishes him, and us, for that beauty. The episodes weave together multiple time lines—a trope of contemporary television. We meet Julian as he is being released from prison, exonerated after fifteen years for a murder he did not commit. (In flashbacks, we see a terrified and disoriented Julian, found in bed with the fresh corpse of a client.) I am using the name Julian to refer to him, but it is an alias of a sort. It was bestowed upon him by Olga, a madam who bought him from his mother at the age of fifteen; his real name is Johnny. As a teen-ager, Johnny is played by Gabriel LaBelle, who is skinny but, crucially, cherubic-faced, a look that contrasts with the prickly detritus of the trailer park in which he was raised.
Johnny’s backstory is a buttress for the show’s conservatism, which is shocking, even for mainstream culture. Sex work is presented as a purgatory to which the innocent are condemned. The protagonist had to be split in two to do it. And, when he finally escapes his terrible fate, he has to be cajoled by an old colleague, Lorenzo (Wayne Brady, completely miscast), to go back “under.”
The writing in this series is only superficially concerned with sex work, or how the reality of transaction molds all aspects of human relationships. The first season will have eight episodes, and in the six I’ve screened there is only one sustained examination of Julian’s relationship with a client. While I cannot spoil it here, suffice it to say that the drama of their night extinguishes any possibility of nuance or insight.
What should be a sprawling vision of sex is shrunk to a political tract; the show wants us to know how dutiful it is, making an awkwardly conspicuous display of Julian tearing open a condom wrapper. The shots of Bernthal’s body are appropriately fetishistic, but they are not attached to an idea, to a curiosity about how his male form arouses women in society. There is no society, in fact. The environment of “American Gigolo” is narrow, largely sequestered to police precincts, Julian’s apartment, a billionaire’s lair. Richard Gere’s Julian trotted and strutted down the streets of Los Angeles—bringing daytime glamour to the “streetwalker”—so that we could feel the paradox of his business, a human consumer good. And so that we could feel the tragedy in his downfall, when he is framed for murder.
Schrader’s film is a California noir. The liaison between Julian and his lover, Michelle, a state senator’s wife, is damned. To free him, she forfeits her status, providing an alibi that will expose their affair. The ending asks an eternal question: Was the loner Julian interested in love? There is nothing ambiguous, in the new “American Gigolo,” about the romance between Julian and Michelle, played by Gretchen Mol. The writers go out of their way to class up the couple’s affair, which is rendered in glossy flashback.
The series, in which we are made to endure a ludicrous pedophilia plot, which turns into a kidnapping plot, which turns into a murder plot, and then into a kidnapping plot again, is a straight crime drama. Straight, in both meanings of the word: in “American Gigolo,” queerness is excised from the domain of sex work and brought to the realm of policing, through Rosie O’Donnell as Detective Sunday, the cop who coerced Julian into giving a false confession, and who is the only openly gay character in the main cast. (In the present time line, she wants to atone by helping the beleaguered Julian, after his exoneration.) The straightness of the world is baffling, especially when one considers that both Gregg Araki and Cheryl Dunye, stars of the new queer cinema of the nineteen-nineties, were brought on as directors for this first season. The show wants to engage queer culture, but it dares not offend its viewers.
Our generation’s Julian Kaye, the writers seem to believe, should be a magnet for misery and humiliation. Even after he serves the prison sentence, and leaves his former life behind, murders keep being done either around him or in his name. But he’s not as lonely this time. A mysterious pit bull trails him, as if a spirit guide. He’s also got a cop and then a gaggle of Black people to help him. There’s Lorenzo, but there’s also Lizzy (Yolonda Ross), his landlord, who is boringly nonjudgmental, and Diamond (Paula Jai Parker), a sex worker from back in the day, who doesn’t hesitate to drop her business in order to help Julian with one of his Biblical tortures.
I am assuming that the beatific haze will dissolve, by the season’s finale, and that we will finally get to see Julian react, and lose it. As for right now, it hurts to see Bernthal, a leading man—if that creature still exists—struggle with the leaden material. Part of me wants a second season, to see if the show will open up; the smarter part of me wants to see Bernthal released. ♦