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Showtime got a little bit lucky with The Man Who Fell to Earth. The sci-fi drama took a title that means very little to modern audiences and a story that didn’t really require extending into a new era, but creators Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman had a specific and contemporary tale they wanted to tell — and, in Chiwetel Ejiofor, a fully committed leading man giving a wild, hilarious, soulful central performance.
Perhaps owing to the arbitrary attempt to build around the title of a 1976 film (and a 1963 novel), The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t appear to have generated any buzz at all and Ejiofor didn’t even crack the outer edge of the Emmy conversation.
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Gretchen Mol, Rosie O'Donnell
Creator: David Hollander, based on the film by Paul Schrader
Showtime hasn’t even gotten that lucky with American Gigolo. David Hollander’s (Ray Donovan) continuation of Paul Schrader’s 1980 feature arrives facing two big questions: Why pick up the loose threads from this particular story? And why do it now? After three full episodes, I don’t have anything resembling an answer to either question.
The last of the episodes sent to critics probably gets to the place American Gigolo should have reached by the end of its pilot. Despite the game if unremarkable efforts of star Jon Bernthal, none of the narrative or character development hinted at in those earlier episodes gives any indication that this is a journey worth continuing.
Schrader’s film is an anthropological exploration of Los Angeles at the beginning of the Reagan Era, a trapped-in-amber glimpse at fashion, music and the way a generation of female desire was encapsulated by a young Richard Gere. It’s about the connection, or maybe the disconnection, between sex work and sexuality. Then there’s also a murder mystery, one that mostly isn’t engaging, however fun it is to watch Gere and Hector Elizondo verbally sparring or Gere dangling Bill Duke off of a balcony.
As a television series, American Gigolo moves the thing that was in the background of the movie into the foreground — without any awareness that it was never gripping to begin with — and replaces all the fascinating elements that the movie was actually about with absolutely nothing.
We begin with Bernthal’s Julian Kaye being released from prison after serving 15 years for a murder he didn’t commit. It isn’t the exact same murder he was suspected of in the movie, but it’s close enough. Elizondo’s Sunday is now played by Rosie O’Donnell, who still has suspicions. Sunday’s suspicions make Julian suspicious, and even though his name is fully cleared, he’s eager to find out who set him up. That forces him to get back in touch with his old pimp The Queen (Sandrine Holt), her vicious daughter Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré) and his old hustling chum Lorenzo (Wayne Brady).
Freedom also allows Julian the opportunity to obsess over Michelle (Gretchen Mol, stepping in for Lauren Hutton), with whom he has a chilly and not wholly convincing love story in the movie, though Hollander believes in it entirely. If I had to pinpoint one fatal flaw in the series, it’s Hollander’s bizarre credulity regarding things Schrader treated with hollow superficiality, ranging from the intentionally glossy and vacuous style to Julian’s protestations about why he only turns tricks with women. Maybe later episodes will dig deeper. I won’t be around to find out.
Actually, before that fatal flaw, I would pick on the fact that the movie could have taken place only in one city and one moment in time and, in the series, time and geography are fully fungible. Hollander, who wrote and directed the first two episodes (and served as showrunner until… he didn’t), goes so far as to completely reproduce some of the flashier and most familiar images from the movie and maintains iconic signposts like the vintage convertible Julian drives down the coast and pivotal usage of Blondie’s “Call Me” — except that Bernthal would have been four in 1980, and no effort has been made to suggest why this student of the art of pleasure would also be a student of ’80s nostalgia. Being a hustler in pre-AIDS Los Angeles had to have been different from being a hustler in 2006, but you absolutely wouldn’t know it here. Adding to dateline confusion is the show’s decision to call The Queen “The Westside Madam,” connecting her with Heidi Fleiss, whose own reign of power was the early ’90s.
While reasonably handsomely produced, American Gigolo indeed has no sense of time, and therefore no sense of shifting ideas about desire or shifting perceptions of sex work. If you want a nuanced exploration of 21st century sex work, there are three seasons of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience just sitting there. The substitution here of Venice Beach for the Malibu and Beverly Hills settings of the movie might say something about Los Angeles trendiness, but if you’re looking to give the city even an iota of authenticity, maybe erasing the racial identity of the one Latino character from the movie was a weird choice?
Sigh. Fine, the actual fatal flaw of American Gigolo is just that it’s half dull and half ludicrous. It’s been structured as a revenge mystery, as if the plot of the movie was really the thing anybody cared about. It’s a bizarre and bizarrely predictable approach, as is the flimsy attempt to take an intentionally enigmatic character from the movie and give him an over-explained origin story that borders dangerously on making underaged sex trafficking look glamorous. There’s a secondary plotline involving an affair between a teacher and high-school student that’s intended as a condemnation of the way the media treats such cases of statutory rape, but that’s just American Gigolo trying to have it both ways.
It’s all a waste of Bernthal, who actually could have been a perfect leading man for a modern probe into commodified masculinity and sexuality, but hasn’t been given anything to play. O’Donnell, Brocheré and especially Brady bring more interest and more danger, but not enough to keep American Gigolo watchable.
Looking at the talent behind upcoming episodes would seem to offer hope. Gregg Araki and Cheryl Dunye (who probably would have both been better choices to steer the show’s visual palette from the beginning) direct later installments and, like I said, the very end of the third episode is a pivot toward something better. Maybe there really will be an investigation of Julian’s sexuality, of a 2022 version of Los Angeles culture, of the 40-year evolution in sex work. Again, I’m not sticking around to find out.
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