‘American Gigolo’ Is An Excellent Showcase For Jon Bernthal, But Not Much More

Showtime’s American Gigolo opens with a tight close-up of Julian Kayne (Jon Bernthal). He’s staring blankly at a wall, unable to process what’s about to happen to him. Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell) enters the room – although the camera remains close on Bernthal’s distinct, sweaty face. Sunday asks him how he’s doing, if he’s hungry, and Bernthal answers in whispers, his face barely moving. As Sunday begins to tell Julian why he needs to plead guilty to murder, Bernthal squeezes his face and sobs. He mumbles and puts his hand over his face. He looks down and tries to defend himself, but he’s so distraught that he stutters. “I’m just really – really … scared,” he says softly. Then he screams at the top of his lungs, but still with soft body language: “I don’t remember! I don’t remember!” It’s the kind of guttural scream you can feel in your bones.

American Gigolo, a present-day retelling of the Paul Schrader 1980 film of the same name starring Richard Gere, follows male escort Julian Kayne after he’s released from prison. Julian served 15 years on a wrongful conviction. Upon his release, Julian’s past immediately comes back to haunt him, despite his resistance to stay out of it. Julian reflects on his past and a past relationship with Michelle (Gretchen Mol). Detective Sunday (O’Donnell) is hell-bent on figuring out exactly who committed the murder Julian went to prison for and, unfortunately, even more, murder follows, unleashing a mysterious conspiracy surrounding a seemingly innocent Julian. The series was developed by David Hollander (Ray Donovan) and is executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. The series premieres on Sunday, September 11 on Showtime, with new episodes available via streaming and on-demand every Friday.

Unfortunately, American Gigolo never quite lives up to its explosive introduction, failing to deliver on the raw intensity it so confidently introduces immediately. The series is so stylish that any substance is invisible or rushed. The series respects its source material but doesn’t try to mimic it. Rather, it incorporates 80s elements in its outlandish, glossy, color style. The opening credits, set to Blondie’s “Call Me” – a little on the nose but reflective of 80s cheese – are a montage of Julian’s work life: shots of him sleeping with women, getting in and out of shiny cars in bright, idealistic Los Angeles locations. Bernthal, as evidenced by his television performances this year alone (We Own This City, The Bear) has an uncanny ability to be two things at once: he is everyman and completely singular at the same time. On American Gigolo, he is mysterious and more transparent than air. Perhaps Bernthal is so good that the rest of the show feels like a disappointment because it just can’t live up to him. Bernthal, who thinks he is ugly, anchors the show, but it’s not enough to keep it interesting when he’s off-screen.

Beyond Bernthal, the show’s strength lies in its supporting characters. As Detective Sunday, O’Donnell isn’t given much to work with, but she acts as if her life depends on it. Her scenes with Bernthal in particular showcase her best work, despite the flatness of the character. O’Donnell gives the character, who is like so many detectives we’ve seen before, more individuality. Wayne Brady, who plays Lorenzo, a work colleague of Julian’s, is not in the series nearly as much as he should be (Showtime provided the press with the first three episodes), and his extremely Wayne Brady performance gives the show a necessary levity. The show is at its most compelling in its quieter, reflective moments, especially in the developing friendship between Julian and his landlord, Lizzie (Yolanda Ross). The actors are completely in sync with the way they perform, and the dynamic between the characters gives the story an essential authentic emotional weight, despite the relationship having almost nothing to do with the central plot.

The highs, however, don’t save the lows. American Gigolo relies on flashbacks, as Julian looks back on his childhood and teen years, having been groomed from an early age by his pimp. The series also follows Julian’s ex, Michelle, whose teenage son is embroiled in a situation that mirrors (not exactly, but almost) Julian’s. This part of the story – that is, the part that is essentially a crime show – feels like a low-tier procedural, and kills the momentum along with the flashbacks. Some context is great, especially when learning about new characters in the first season of a television series. But there is such a thing as too much context. If American Gigolo can recognize its strengths – performances and character building – it has potential, but for now, it’s incomplete.

American Gigolo premieres Friday, September 9 via Showtime’s streaming service. The first episode will then also air on Showtime on Sunday, September 11 at 9 p.m. ET.