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‘American Gigolo’ is Less About Sexy Jon Bernthal, More About Evil Sex Slavery


When Showtime dropped the first trailer for their new drama American Gigolo, my Twitter timeline and group chats were set ablaze. Here was Jon Bernthal, our latest internet crush, smirking his way through various seductions as sex worker Julian Kaye. He was confidence incarnate, wearing 1970s style suits and driving a vintage car along the Southern California coast. It seemed that American Gigolo would be a period piece about Bernthal’s character being framed for murder in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The drama would be about how this man could reclaim his name and his swagger in Los Angeles’s seedy underbelly. And there would be a lot of Jon Bernthal to lust after and to root for.

American Gigolo is sort of that show. Jon Bernthal does play a sex worker who goes by the name Julian Kaye. He is framed for murder and locked up for 15 years, but his arrest occurs in 2006. Meaning he wears ’70s style suits for kicks. Once he is exonerated for the crime in 2021, Julian does need to figure out who framed him. However, underpinning the mystery is a series of horrifying flashbacks and upsetting scenes that show that Julian — real name Johnny — has suffered a life time of sexual abuse. His mother loaned him out to a trailer park neighbor as a child and later sold him into sex slavery. American Gigolo is a show about a man who has been constantly victimized by the world.

Ergo, American Gigolo is not the tawdry, fun thriller the ads promised. It is, in fact, a hell of a bummer. Don’t watch American Gigolo if you’re looking to ogle Jon Bernthal and feel good about it. Johnny/Julian’s story is so horrifying that you’ll feel guilty for crushing on this guy.

Jon Bernthal in American Gigolo sadly knocking on his mom's trailer door
Photo: Showtime

American Gigolo is loosely based on Paul Schrader’s film of the same name. As in that film, Julian Kaye is a male escort who becomes involved with a powerful man’s wife and then becomes implicated in the murder of one of his clients. Showtime’s version of events are scrambled up and flit between timelines to meditate on how early childhood abuse forced Johnny to become Julian. While Richard Gere’s film version of the character enjoyed being a sex worker and relished in its superficial rewards, Jon Bernthal’s version of Julian Kaye is a suit of armor put on to save Johnny Henderson from more pain.

American Gigolo is not the first 2022 title to explain how childhood trauma pushed a charming man into the world of sex work. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande also reveals that its escort hero (Daryl McCormack) uses aliases to cover up the pain of the past. However that film never denigrates sex work or sex itself. While that film is about the pleasure and power of sexual release, American Gigolo associates Julian’s work with literal slavery.

Jon Bernthal in American Gigolo looking hot
Photo: Showtime

Showtime’s American Gigolo has every right to portray a darker side of sex work, but the show’s adverts might be misleading audiences into thinking it’s not that sort of story. It is a fabulous treat for Jon Bernthal fans, albeit not in the way they might think. As always, Bernthal is electric, dominating the screen like so few actors of his generation can. He plays Julian Kaye more like a bruise than a fully-formed man. He is doing all he can at all times to cover up his deep tenderness and even deeper hurt. But if you think this is the show that will turn Jon Bernthal into the A list star and sex symbol he deserves to be, it’s not. Showtime’s American Gigolo will make you feel guilty for lusting after Bernthal’s character, because in doing so, you are complicit in the crimes committed against him.





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