A Different Kind of American Crime
When The People V. O.J. Simpson premiered in February of 2016, it did a revelatory job of looking at one of the most shocking crimes in the twentieth century. and in such a way to make it resonate even more than it had more than two decades earlier. In a season of brilliant limited series, it dominated the awards circuit, winning at the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Critics. It has taken FX and Ryan Murphy nearly two years to come up with a follow-up in their American Crime Story series, and even if it was as good as the first season, it would still be an anticlimax. Yet The Assassination of Gianni Versace has moments of brilliance, is just as good at grasping the Zeitgeist, and even has some moments of being superior.
Unlike the O.J. Simpson case, Versace murder didn’t quite grab the medias attention the same way. It did have a certain grasp in the world of fashion, where Versace was king for more than two decades, but his murder never made the same impact. Part of it had to do with what is clearly unspoken — Versace was gay, his killer was gay, and there was a still great tendency to ignore that part of our society. And in a sense, that was what led to Versace’s murder in the first place. Andrew Cunanan had been stalking Versace for years — we see their first meeting in the opening episode. In the gap between their meeting and Versace’s murder, Cunanan killed four other, middle aged gay men, many of whom were closeted homosexuals. Indeed, last night’s episode demonstrated just how dark the world was, focusing on the murder of Lee Miglin, an elderly Chicago architect who Cunanan had been meeting with secretly with Cunanan for years. After the killing, when the details of Miglin’s death became public, his wife allowed details of the crime to be made public, putting the reputation of her family above the safety of the public Even afterward, when the FBI began hunted Cunanan in earnest, the Bureau never seemed to pursue their quarry with the zealousness they usually do for serial killers.
Perhaps the only real flaw in O.J. Simpson was that the circus of the trial made the victims get lost in the media glare, and to an extent, so did Simpson himself. In a sense, Versace tries to course correct by showing us the killing, and before that, the lives of both victim and perpetrator. It’s a daring approach, and in some ways it works very well. In addition to his work as a designer, Versace (Edgar Ramirez) was a revolutionary. He lived a traditional gay lifestyle with his partner Paul (Ricky Martin, kind of a revelation), but during their life, he became HIV positive. The fact that he managed to emerge from this not only alive, but with a sense of optimism in his work is remarkable, and does add a level of tragedy to an already dark story. It certainly astonished his sister Donnatella (Penelope Cruz), who had her only problems with him near the end.
All of this intriguing, but it pales in comparison to the portrait of Cunanan. Darren Criss, who represented all that was good on Murphy’s Glee, is a revelation playing a monster. Everything so often you can see parts of Cunanan that were charming, but most of that comes from the lies that he has no problem spinning. Its clear from almost the very first moment that we see him that there is something missing from Andrew. As he told us at the climax of the second episode, he can be whatever someone wants him to be — except a human being. The only time he seems complete is when he’s humiliating someone, and that’s usually before he kills them. Criss automatically goes to the frontrunner position for Best Actor in A Limited Series.
Assassination of Gianni Versace is not nearly as perfect as People Vs. O.J. Simpson. But there are far darker aspects to it, and there is a certain level of realism that wasn’t present in the first season. It’s more about the ugliness of gay sexuality and the true danger of being in the closet that no doubt millions of people still live in. It’s well acting and seems to be focused on telling more than one story than the previous series did. This may be the most personal story Murphy has told since Glee, and its definitely one of his more spartan ones, despite all the accoutrements. More than that, it proves that the first season of American Crime Story was no fluke, and that hopefully more daring, vital stories of our nation’s criminal history can be retold. Otherwise, how can we ever hope to learn?
My score: 4 stars.