I’ll never forget the first time I saw Chicken Ranch, Nick Broomfield’s 1983 documentary about a legal brothel in Nevada. It was something of a life-altering experience for me, simply for the straightforward way it lifted the veil off of glamorized notions of prostitution. The streetwalker with a heart of gold, the high-class call girl, even just your garden-variety crack-ho—all of these familiar, Hollywood-ized archetypes quickly dissolved, and suddenly I was confronted with the banal truth of what it actually means to sell your body for money. It’s kind of an insane notion, when you really think about it, and watching these young girls with feathered hair inarticulately attempt to justify the job was just so transfixing and sad. I have never thought about hookers the same way since.
Which brings us to Showtime’s Gigolos, a new reality series about a group of straight, male prostitutes from Las Vegas. What would prostitution look like if you removed from the equation its most unsettling aspect—the misogyny implicit in treating women like pieces of lease-able meat? As it turns out, the life of a male hooker isn’t much less tragic than that of his female counterparts. But boy, oh boy, is it fun to watch.
The obvious comparison here is to Jersey Shore, except the girls are now banished to the far outskirts of the bar-trawling action, and Pauly and The Sitch are getting paid to hook up. (And we’re in the room with the lights on while they’re doing it. Gigolos contains some of the most graphic sex I’ve ever seen on a TV screen that wasn't coming from a DVD player or hard drive.) The comparison is an entirely reasonable one to make—there’s plenty of Gym-Tanning-Laundry when the gigolos are off the clock—but the premise offers far more psychological complexity than a show that's just about fist-pumping and avoiding grenades.
For starters, there IS no grenade avoidance. These guys have to say yes to any woman who manages to scrape up $200. So we begin with Nick, the egotistical guido of the bunch, surfing the web for new clients at home (where we catch a glimpse of his tattooed penis) before heading off to that evening’s client: a woman who looks like the morphing half-way point between Tori Spelling and Joanie Laurer. She says she's a teacher. Let's hope it's an ESL class and not kindergarten. Watching these two perform their dance of compulsory seduction was—how can I put this?—one of the most cringe-inducing and amazing things I’ve seen in quite some time. And I watch Million-Dollar Matchmaker in Heels. The next thing you know, the two of them are having sex, condoms are being pulled off and tossed aside, and Tori Laurer is telling Nick that the giant seaweed tattoo on his back (or maybe it's an anemone?) looks like a plate of overturned spaghetti. All while having sex. Mind-blowing.
And we haven’t even met Brace yet! First of all, his name is Brace. BRACE. That in itself is just kind of amazing. Brace is the group’s “gigolo elder,” if you will. He’s also its motor-mouthed, sun-damaged, sex-addicted, woman-hating lounge lizard. As such, he is absolutely amazing. We need to cryogenically preserve this dude and stick him in a time capsule, so alien visitors thousands of years from now can see how and why the human race went extinct. If there’s a breakout gigolo, Brace is him.
But just as we're starting to hate these guys, we meet a few who actually seem like genuinely nice people who’ve made some terrible decisions in their lives. Like the soft-spoken Steven, for example, who looks a little like a young Elvis, and melts whenever the subject of his five-year-old son comes up—which is quite often. Steven explains matter-of-factly that he started out trying to be a model, but that everyone “just wanted to f*ck me,” and so he finally took the road most profitable. Sh*t happens, amirite?
And then there’s Jimmy—definitely the brains of the group, who looks at prostitution as a means to an end. "It’s being a 'recessionista,'" he says, adding, "Read that in Wired magazine.” It’s in a jaw-dropper of a scene—where Jimmy services a very, uh, vocal woman as her very normal-seeming husband cheers them on from the sidelines —that Gigolos has one of its more profound moments. First comparing paid sex to a game of cops and robbers, Jimmy then says, “Just like a child, you are fully engaged in the moment. Not judging it, not being self-conscious about it, and not even being aware of yourself in it. I think that’s probably the best part.”
Wow. Just, wow. There is, like, a lifetime’s worth of future therapy breakthroughs locked inside that one statement. The conjuring of children while speaking about sex, the complete emotional disassociation: It sounds to me as if Jimmy has some seriously dark and repressed memories buried inside that vault of a noggin.
Finally, there’s the group's newest addition, Vin. Before he arrives, Garren, the gigolos' "agent" (the similarities to the Hollywood acting racket don't end there) tells the group that Vin is black, which leads Nick to crack, "If he's really black, he's on ghetto time, so he'll be 20 minutes late." It turns out Vin is actually of mixed race, but black enough to earn a spot on the all-white crew. “It looks like I’m breaking the color barrier of the elite gigolo crew. There’s Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and now, Vin Armani,” he says, in one of the dozens of memorable lines from Thursday’s premiere. I guess we'll see him at the next NAACP Awards.