I figure I should fill you in on a couple of things that are going on with me right now, seeing as we’re friends (we’re friends, right?). The first thing is: I’ve been speeding through the first 30 interminable episodes of Better Call Saul, racing to the mythical bit where you all keep telling me it “gets really good”, and secondly, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories. As you can imagine, my perception of time is fairly glooped out by the tandem consumption of these two art forms: one, a 30-hour trudge through the desert that occasionally, as a treat, returns into an undramatic and unfunny court procedural; and the other, the most succinct way of getting to the point possible beyond a news bulletin. Inside me are two wolves: one is convinced every great TV show requires more than a day’s worth of viewing to get its ideas across; and another thinks a good writer can do more with one page of a short story than most people can with an entire novel.
This has been exacerbated by watching American Gigolo (Paramount+), the Jon Bernthal-fronted remake of the Richard Gere name-maker from 1980, which – for 40 exhilarating minutes of the pilot – promises to be some of the most frenetic, fast-moving , sexy TV ever made. Then Act 3 happens. Then episode two, and then episode – oh no you’re not. You’re not going to believe this. There are seven more hours of this.
We’ll start with the good bits: Jon Bernthal is very sexy, and I don’t even think that is a political statement to make. He looks sexy in a suit, and he very frequently takes the suit off and stares at it laid out on the bed, as if it is threatening him. He looks sexy when he’s in prison on a wrongful conviction and when he slithers right out of there again and shaves his mustache off. He looks sexy walking around in a black T-shirt tucked into black trousers because he’s humble, now. There’s very little actual sex – almost none, weirdly – but sometimes Bernthal just oils his hair for a bit and you’re like: ah, yeah. Good enough.
That’s about it. The problem with remake culture – “What if we took a 42-year-old neo-noir crime drama about a high-flying LA escort being implicated in a murder and forced it through 2022’s premium TV lens, so it looks terrible, and made it 10 hours long for absolutely no reason? Would that be good?” – is not the fact that everything is a remake and nothing is original. The problem is, to pad out the protein of the source material with enough fiber to make it a TV meal, you have to give every character a backstory, a flashback, a motive, an interior life, and you have to play all of those along easy TV beats that everyone will get. If they gave Taxi Driver this treatment, for instance – another Paul Schrader-written classic – they’d fill it with the same crap: too many nostalgic scenes about Travis Bickle’s mother, an extended cold open where a 14-year-old Bickle touches a steering wheel for the first time while the music rises, a series finale where a wide-eyed young Bickle watches a guy with a mohawk stick up a gas station, enchanted.
In American Gigolo, this materialises as a completely wasted storyline about Gretchen Mol’s son, some why-am-I-watching-these? scenes where Bernthal’s Julian Kaye makes friends with his landlady dele, and a lot of him walking around places, remembering things. There are flashbacks to his adolescence that threatens to be interesting then turn out not to be. There is a murder-mystery going on throughout all this, and I would like to say it is intricate but it’s actually just “drawn out and badly told”. For some reason, every episode has long montages of footage we’ve already seen, often in the same episode. Rosie O’Donnell is the show’s one other bright spot: she is doing a really interesting new flavor of blunt, gruff detective, and her and her character her deserve the 10 hours more than Bernthal getting a job in a kitchen then remembering how he went to brunch once.
So it sucks, then. That’s fine. In recent years, TV has been moving to a place where a lot of shows are designed to be half-watched while looking at your phone, and American Gigolo possibly threatens to take this concept even further: you don’t even need to watch it with the sound on. Just look up from Instagram occasionally whenever Jon Bernthal is on screen.