Once you get past the familiar strains of Blondie’s “Call Me” in the opening credits, the message of “American Gigolo” isn’t worth answering. Rather, it’s a misguided and nasty reboot, seeking to twist the film’s premise into a larger mystery. Jon Bernthal struts around as an escort trying to find his laughter again, but this ’80s artifact should have been left in the time capsule.
Adapted in series form by David Hollander, who later left the project, the mix of flash and trash in and around sunny Southern California almost makes the producer’s latest stop for Showtime, “Ray Donovan,” seem joyful and optimistic in comparison. (Nikki Toscano, of Paramount’s “The Offer,” took over as showrunner.)
Julian de Bernthal is freed after 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and at first seems unconcerned about who might have framed him, despite the detective’s urgings (Rosie O’Donnell , just one of the co-stars) who helped sideline him.
“Don’t you want to know what happened?” she asks.
Turning to the past and present, “American Gigolo” uses the familiar time-jump device, including Julian’s entry into the sex-for-cash trade as a teenager, under the guidance of a madam (Sandrine Holt) who throws lavish pool parties overlooking the ocean.
There’s a lewd aspect to sexuality in the show that sometimes confuses “ick” with “edgy”, made worse by the fact that it’s about minors. It’s also not helped by the tension of whether Julian will return to the sex business, which, as flashbacks make clear, is the only business he really knows.
Since “The Walking Dead,” Bernthal has appeared in a variety of badass roles, including Marvel’s “The Punisher,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” and most recently HBO’s factual crime drama “We Own This City.” . Here he may show a more vulnerable side, but Julian is such a tightly coiled and inscrutable character that it’s hard to particularly worry about his fate, despite attempts by those like his former colleague Lorenzo (Wayne Brady, yet another times somewhat incongruously, as an adult) to pull him out of his shell.
“American Gigolo” does its best to keep peeling off layers of mystery like the film noir of the past, with the detective at one point telling Julian he’s “like the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ of f—ing crime scenes” as new victims occur.
The key to “Where’s Waldo?”, of course, is to make the effort to find him. “American Gigolo” tries to provide an incentive, but after the quick edit as Debbie Harry performs that title track, the tilt is to say “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”.
“American Gigolo” airs Sept. 9 on Showtime’s streaming service and Sept. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.