American Gigolo, the 1980 erotic thriller from writer-director Paul Schrader that made Richard Gere a superstar, opens with an iconic title sequence. Gere, as high-end sex worker Julian Kaye, cruises the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mercedes convertible with the top down and the wind blowing through his lustrous hair. As Blondie’s “Call Me” blares, he gets fitted for a chic suit, allows an older woman to foot the bill for the outfit, drops her off at a respectable-looking home, and zooms on down the road.
American Gigolo, the 2022 Showtime drama series from executive producer and showrunner Nikki Toscano (The Offer) that casts Jon Bernthal in the Gere role, faithfully updates the montage, preserving its undeniable theme song. Derivative but fun, the sequence is just about as good as the show gets. While the original film captured the zeitgeist of its era, all the series (premiering Sept. 11) has going for it–besides a charismatic performance from its reliably great lead–is nostalgia.
A sequel that revises aspects of Schrader’s story and updates it to the present, this Gigolo begins where its predecessor ended: with Julian in prison for a murder he can’t remember committing. Fifteen years have passed since his conviction, and he doesn’t seem especially unhappy behind bars; he’s grown a mustache, covered his torso in tattoos, and earned a place in the inmates’ hierarchy. Suddenly, Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell, gender-flipping the Hector Elizondo role), the cop who put him away, arrives with the news that a dying hit man has confessed to the murder and DNA has confirmed it. Julian is free–but who set him up? And why?
So begins his meandering, half-hearted quest to find out. He tracks down his old friend Lorenzo (an astonishingly miscast Wayne Brady) and a married former lover, Michelle (Gretchen Mol, in a bland variation on Lauren Hutton‘s character in the film), whose husband is a terrifyingly powerful tech billionaire. Intertwined with the story unfolding in the present are flashbacks stretching from his teen years at an upscale brothel to the period immediately before his arrest. We watch his pathetic mother sell a barely pubescent Julian to the imperious madam Olga (Sandrine Holt), in a trite origin story for a character who works better as an enigma.
To revive Gigolo after 42 years as a straightforward, if confusingly plotted, whodunit is to fundamentally misunderstand the movie. Released as the revolutionary, hedonistic ’70s were transitioning into the reactionary, materialistic ’80s, it’s a study in ambiguity. Schrader doesn’t just keep the murder mysterious; he also keeps us guessing about Julian’s backstory, motivations, even his sexual orientation. (Julian 2.0 comes off as extremely straight.) A stylish male sex worker made for a potent symbol at a time when feminism and gay liberation were challenging traditional roles in the bedroom. (Credited as an “executive consultant,” whatever that means, Schrader has nonetheless said that he had no real involvement in the show, which he always believed was a “terrible idea,” but chose to cooperate rather than “threaten an expensive and futile lawsuit.”)
These lonely pandemic years have seen many efforts to reignite the erotic thriller craze of the ’80s and ’90s. Fatal Attraction auteur Adrian Lyne returned with the abysmal Deep Water. Sydney Sweeney headlined a middling Gen Z take, The Voyeurs. Paramount+ is developing an Attraction series starring Lizzy Caplan, Joshua Jackson, and Amanda Peet. So far these projects have fallen flat, because 20th century taboos are old news. Painting sex workers or queer people as exotic others would be disingenuous now, even if it weren’t offensive.
To strike a nerve, an erotic thriller must capture what is erotic and thrilling and controversial in the present (see: 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, in which a woman impregnated by a car finds a makeshift family). Instead, Showtime’s Gigolo circles around topics like child sex trafficking and sexual relationships between teen boys and adult women. These are safe, unequivocally serious social issues to lean on for thematic resonance in an otherwise superfluous sequel. And if there’s one thing that snuffs out an erotic thriller even faster than nostalgia, it’s the choice to play it safe.
This appears in the September 12, 2022 issue of TIME.
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