The second series of American Crime Story couldn’t be more different from the first, and considering the overwhelming success that was The People v O.J, a change in tone and direction is a bold move for the historical drama. However, as the subject matter is entirely different, a new tone is more than warranted here. The Assassination of Gianni Versace is bright, bold and much more reminiscent of previous Ryan Murphy series than The People v O.J ever was, but a compelling script courtesy of London Spy’s Tom Rob Smith — and a remarkable leading performance from Darren Criss — keeps the show from going off-track.
The first episode is bold, much like the iconic fashion designer himself, and Murphy does a great job with the direction. Colours pop and tensions mount, and operatic music adds to the intensity of the show, making it a nail-biting opener. Yes, the introduction to the world of Versace is nothing short of magnificent, setting the scene and introducing us to the famous fashion designer himself (Edgar Ramirez) as well as the man who would eventually become his killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss).
While the O.J series was a social commentary on racial politics at the time of the iconic murder trial, Versace is a tale about homophobia during the ’90s. The bustling streets and crowded parties cannot make up for the feeling of loneliness that comes with being gay during such a time, something that we see very clearly through both of our protagonist’s eyes.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace has everything it needs to succeed. Fronted by Criss and Ramirez, the show is rounded off with great performances from Penelope Cruz, who’s portrayal of Gianni’s sister Donatella is perfect, and Ricky Martin, who plays Versace’s lover. The major problem with tackling a story of this magnitude is the fact that some of the events leading up to Versace’s death are still a mystery — specifically where Cunanan is concerned. Although it’s worth noting that even though some of the events are fictionalised, Versace never feels contrived. As a result of extensive research (not to mention the use of Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors), Smith and Murphy have constructed a believable tale, dramatising these events as best they can.
The interesting part of this narrative is that, unlike the O.J series, the killer’s identity is known from the very beginning and, following the murder, the nine-part drama quickly evolves into a whydunit as opposed to a whodunit. The show may be titled The Assassination of Gianni Versacebut, make no mistake, this harrowing tale of deception and lies is about Andrew Cunanan. In what I would call one of the most unique storytelling method’s seen on television in recent years, Smith tells the story backwards, and subsequent episodes go back to very beginning of Cunanan’s crime spree. According to the show, Cunanan and Versace were acquainted with each other and it was Cunanan’s obsessive personality that eventually led him to killing the renowned designer. Telling the story from Cunanan’s perspective is a seriously bold move, but one that pays off — largely due to Criss’s award-worthy performance.
Cunanan is the protagonist here and being a social outcast certainly doesn’t help his compulsive personality. Murphy’s shows have always focused on underdogs. From Rachel Berry in Glee, to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Feud, each of his protagonists are faced with obstacles that they must overcome in order to succeed in the pursuit of their goal. While Cunanan is seemingly an underdog — or at the very least, an outcast — his goal is something akin to being the centre of attention. Whether lying about his profession or his income, Cunanan is always playing a role while simultaneously making himself out to be more important (or perhaps more relevant) than he actually is. Attention is not only his need, it’s his endgame. He desperately craves it and will stop at nothing to get it, which is perhaps why Murphy named the show after Versace — to deprive Cunanan of that attention.
Considering he’s best known for playing adorable warbler Blaine Anderson in Murphy’s mega-hit series Glee, Criss’s performance in Versace is astounding. Bearing a striking resemblance to the real-life Cunanan, Criss is mesmerising and incredibly unsettling here and, despite the character’s heinous actions, the actor somehow manages to humanise Cunanan, making him more than just your average one-dimensional serial killer.
The best thing about Versace is that being unfamiliar with the case actually benefits your viewing. The O.J trial was publicised beyond belief and the outcome was well-known. This time around we know less going in and, as a result, we have no idea what’s coming next. I’m enthralled with the show and while other critics may scold me for having such an opinion, I’m finding that The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a much more accessible tale than The People v. O.J. Like Versace’s designs, the series is stylish, but thankfully, there’s an abundance of substance too.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of of Gianni Versace Continues Wednesday at 9.00pm on BBC Two.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson