This American Crime Story review contains spoilers.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace Episode 1
From the very first notes of music, Versace is operatic.
It has fantastic sets and locations, and it knows it. It has a justifiable reason for using opera music in primetime, and it flaunts it. The opener is directed by Ryan Murphy, and the most creative shots are loving, unexpected portrayals of the places where these two men, killer and killed, belong. The most revealing moment, and one that speaks to the larger themes of the show, shows barely any of Darren Criss’s face as killer Andrew Cunanan, accompanied by horns that sound more like a klaxon or warning than the brass section of the orchestra.
Even Gianni’s death, and the gut-punchingly grim spectacle that forms around it, is beautiful, as is the twin autopsy of Gianni and the dove that died alongside him. This kind of show is designed to be watching with Wikipedia open in one tab, but true or not, the woman who soaks up Gianni’s blood with an ad for his clothing line (which somehow makes it more beautiful?) pushes the limits on craven American responses to celebrity death.
The first episode of a true-crime limited series (a fast-growing micro-genre unto itself) has two main goals: 1) set up the central crime/mystery to be resolved, and 2)hook the audience enough that they’ll think it’s worth sinking eight or ten hours to find out the answer.
It succeeds at the first, but I’m left unsatisfied with the second.
The present tense of the second season (or “installment,” as FX likes to call it) of this limited series is centered on a manhunt, not a media frenzy masquerading as a trial. That allows the show to take on more of a feel of a thriller, with shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Taking Lives. The audience sees the killer – his identity is not obscured – and law enforcement learns his identity within hours of the murder. For Versace, the question is not who did it or how, but rather why. And why, if they knew it was Andrew Cunano and were ready with a trunk full of fliers (that look startlingly close to the real thing) did it take them so long to catch him?
There’s plenty to dig into with those questions, but the episode has to do so much narrative work that it nearly runs out of room to entice us to come back for more. There is so much that’s working here, from the visuals to the performances and the promise of things to come, but it feels sluggish during the oversized runtime, which is closer to an hour than the 44 minutes we’re used to with standard TV dramas.
One of the advantages to Murphy’s American Crime Story is that his flair for melodrama and camp are tempered by the reality that the cases and literally life and death, and his shrewd (though troubled) selection of subjects who naturally call for camp. So much of this installment would be ridiculous literally anywhere else on TV, which might just be Ryan Murphy’s mission statement. Here’s hoping it’s enough to ward off the usual afflictions of his second and third seasons.
Plenty has been said about the debate over ethics in true(ish) crime, but if you’re looking to fall on the right side of the line, it helps to angle your story around larger meaning. Versace has a lot to say about homosexuality and closeting in America, and Murphy’s life experience plays into that in a way he simply couldn’t with the OJ case. Some of Murphy’s best work has been when he tells stories that fundamentally belong to his community. And though to a certain kind of white, cis gay man the story of Bette and Joan might be considered part of their canon, it is fundamentally the story of two women struggling under the pressure to contort their image and personality to compete for the spotlight, and Murphy’s continued failure to properly handle those issues weakened the series.
I’m intrigued by the way the show is handling the many ambiguities inherent in this case. Unlike The People vs OJ, our would-be defendant isn’t famous and has never spoken on the record, so Murphys team and us would-be sleuths are left to imagine many of the key moments.
If we’re talking performances, this is Darren Criss’s show and everyone else is just happy to be invited. That’s not to say the others aren’t good – Edgar Ramirez’s Gianni Versace is solid and charming, Penelope Cruz is completely transformed, and I have a feeling the best is yet to come from Ricky Martin – but rather that the script gives him so much to dig into, and he’s the perfect actor to do it. He easily mimics Cunanan’s real life chameleon physicality, and most people are already in disagreement over his sexual orientation.
Donatella is our other heavy hitter, though they held back on her as long as possible. She has an impactful entrance, though I’m mostly impressed at the restraint Murphy showed here, which fits the tone of the moment within the episode perfectly, but is unusual for him.
Penelope Cruz, who is apparently a friend of Donatella’s and has her blessing, has a tall order to serve. First, the voice. Anyone who knows anything about Donatella Versace knows that her distinct looks comes with an equally distinct accent. Cruz has to play it believably, without dipping into caricature or being so true to life that the audience can’t understand her. Second, she finds herself playing the day to day villain for much of this. She’s the one who dislikes the boyfriend that we’ve all fallen in love with after the cops are so rude to him. She’s the one who cancels the IPO. She’s the one with a sizeable reputation preceding her. And yet, Cruz’s Donatella comes across as powerful, stricken, at a lost, and completely unwilling to lose an inch of her brother’s legacy.
Speaking of that cop, though it’s startling to remember that 1997 was 30 years ago, Versace has no intentions of letting us forget that when it comes to gay rights, it might as well have been lightyears. The cop pretending not to know that Gianni and Antonio are partners, what exactly “partners” means, and then trying to comprehend group sex, has got to be the straightest thing imaginable. But Ricky Martin’s performance keeps it from becoming a punchline. His hurt when the cop suggest there’s no difference between a hookup and what he has with Gianni is deeply genuine, and a startling reminder of how few rights same-sex couples had, just a few decades ago.
That is made more stark by Cunanan’s inability to live in his own skin, his seething rage at himself and those who see him for who he is, and the insinuation that he has HIV (fact-checking suggests that while the media thought he had it at the time of his death, the ME’s report says otherwise). Criss and the script play it pretty close to the vest, letting us believe one thing and then another and then catching him in lie after lie, to the point where we question everything about him.