by Kevin Muller
Ryan Murphy has been a gift from God for FX. Over the past eight years he has given us American Horror Story, Feud, Glee, and most recently 9-1-1. Four out of the five mentioned have won countless awards. In 2016, Murphy gave us a new series called American Crime Story, which was about the trial of OJ Simpson. As with Feud and American Horror Story, each season has its own story with its own characters and conflicts. The series won countless awards for acting and as a series overall. Once again, it was a major win for FX. What would Murphy follow up with for season 2? There were ramblings about Katrina, which will now be season 3, but he ultimately decided to look at the death of Gianni Versace and the hunt for his murderer, Andrew Cunanan. Murphy, a proud and outed gay man, would definitely give one of the gay community’s greatest icons the proper treatment, right? Well, that is where the series becomes conflicted. It isn’t with the acting. All the actors, including Edgar Ramirez, as the title character; Penelope Cruz, as his sister Donatella, and even Ricky Martin, as Versace’s lover, Antonio D’Amico, are all fantastic. The production value is incredible to boot. Even Darren Criss, more on him later, is career defining as Cunanan. The problem lies that the title character isn’t really the main focus of the piece, and when he is, the story is incredibly fragile.
21 Years ago, in June of 1997, fashion icon Gianni Versace was brutally gunned down in the front of his grand villa in Miami. Prior to being shot, he was on top of the world. His collection of synonymous with class, his empire was growing, and he was universally loved. His killer, Andrew Cunanan, was a man who had drifted through life, never really finding himself. What was the motive? In this season, the story is told backwards, so Gianni dying happens in the opening moments of the show. As the series progresses, you get to see how Andrew got to where he was, and how Gianni achieved so much only for Cunanan to strip it away. The narrative decision was a bold one that, at times, works, and other times, doesn’t.
As stated, the Versace’s story isn’t really the main focus of this piece. When the series was announced, the public salivated at who the casting would be for Versace and his sister. Fortunately, they grabbed Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz. These two actors would bring out the relationship that Donatella and Gianni had just fine. The season isn’t totally devoid of their drama, but so much is devoted to Cunanan that they just feel incredibly sidelined. The season could’ve definitely delved deeper into the lives of not only Versace, but his sister, and lover. There is one episode where we see Donatella basically develop courage to wear one of her brother’s dresses, and then another where she fights for the company to stay private, and not go public. It is as if Murphy was teasing us with something more expansive than we were presented. Ramirez was extremely good dealing with Versace’s troubles, such as facing the pressure of coming out to the public in a time where being openly gay wasn’t fully accepted as it is today. He also has well played interactions with Donatella and Amico, two people that he held close to his heart. There are even hints of the difficulties of building his business here. This all would’ve been interesting to see and would’ve added dimension to the icon. Instead, we are presented with what seems like the cliff notes of the victim’s life.
The other victims of Cunanan, who killed 4 people before gunning down Versace, are so well developed that each murder hits you right in the gut. This is where the reverse story telling works at its best. In one episode, you see the extremely violent death of Jeff Trail. Then the next two episodes we are presented with a clear view of who Trail was before his untimely demise. We see how he struggled to conceal his homosexual nature within the NAVY. Finn Wittrock perfectly portrays the struggle in a place where the only thing men are asked to do to is convey their alpha male nature. Murphy and his writers really shine here showing a battle that was, and still is, very real for many closeted men, especially those who serve. We develop a connection with Trail, which makes his gruesome death even more impactful. The other victims Lee Miglin and David Madson also have pretty fleshed out back stories. Miglin was a hugely successful and married older man who was a closeted gay man. Cunanan’s killing of him is just incredibly cruel and is the first time you see how much of a monster he really was deep down inside. Judith Light, of Who’s the Boss, fame is absolutely fantastic in the role of Lee’s wife. So much is thrown at her, but she keeps her professional nature quite well. One of her best scenes is when her friends find her husband’s body. The emotions that she projects when she realizes, by the screams, that her assumption was true, is just great acting. Madson is given the backstory of coming from a very rural upbringing where his father, while not happy with his life choice, taught him to own it. All these actors bring their A-game, but also have the advantage of a script that properly fleshed them out.
Above it all, it is the career defining performance by Darren Criss that makes this show worth it through all of its flaws and inconsistencies. Criss, mainly known as a song and dance man from Glee, is a revelation as Cunanan. The famous serial killer was known for his extravagant taste and obsession with status, as well being a pathological liar. To him, he has lived life to its fullest and rubbed elbows with the legendary, including Versace. It is so obviously all bullshit, but Cunanan is so crazy that he believes everything he spews. There are parts where we see how vulnerable he becomes when having to resort to having to continuously lie. Criss’s eyes display such regret, sadness, and a sense of unworthiness during these brief moments. We also get glimpses into his bizarre childhood where he was treated like a prince. One scene has his father giving away the master bedroom to little Andrew. That episode, the eighth in the nine part series, is what defines the show and was directed by Murphy favorite, Matt Bomer, who dives into the mind and life of young Cunanan. Jon Jon Briones, as Andrew’s father Modesto, gives a damn fine performance, showing the audience how he really lives up to the name of his episode “Creator/Destroyer.” Criss brings such a sinister and frightening amount of terror to when Cunanan commits the murders. The Stepford Wife like pleasantness is completely stripped away and replaced with a total lack of empathy. There is no guilt, remorse, or empathy present what so ever. Outside of the murders, Cunanan is an extremely unpleasant person, but Criss is so captivating to watch that we can’t look away. He became Cunanan in this show. Criss deserves every single praise that he has received.
As this series progresses, I feel this season will be looked at as an interesting veer off from the typical layout. The next two seasons will bring back the ensemble casts, with one being about a hospital during Katrina, and the other being about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Even though Versace fans have every right to feel cheated, Criss’s portrayal of Cunanan is just so damn good as a replacement. Cunanan’s true motive was never discovered, so Murphy only had the novel and his own interpretation to go off of. It is an interesting, but flawed look at one of America’s famous serial killers .
I am giving ‘American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!