The People v. O.J. Simpson was an epic take on the Trial of Last Century, merging complexities of race and gender into a saga of celebrity gone criminal. But the debut iteration of FX’s American Crime Story was a retelling, investigating an incident so famous that it could be the American crime story. To be blunt, it had brand recognition. The Assassination of Gianni Versace doesn’t carry the same built-in awareness, even if the title literally contains a brand name. It’s also a trickier work, crisscrossing the country and most of the ’90s. If O.J. was an epic, this is a short-story collection. Some hit, some miss, all share a heartbreaking theme.
The premiere, directed by Ryan Murphy, doesn’t waste time getting to the crime. We see designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) in his gold-coated Miami villa, while nearby a young man named Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) sits on a beach, cradling a pistol and an apocalyptic attitude. There’s a gunshot, then the cameras and a surreal media circus. One onlooker dabs a Versace ad in the designer’s bloodstain, a grotesque style-icon variation on the Shroud of Turin.
The nine-episode series then becomes a story told in reverse, tracking Cunanan and Versace backward from their fatal meeting. Almost every major character is gay, and there is a haunting mood of paranoia, everyone trapped in their respective closets. We meet Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), a real estate magnate married to cosmetics empress Marilyn (Judith Light). We get to know David Madson (Cody Fern) and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), young men close enough to Cunanan to know too many of his secrets. Ricky Martin gives a sensitive performance as Versace’s partner Antonio D’Amico. They’re all victims of Cunanan, but they’re also victims of an uncaring world. At one point, Antonio’s interrogated by cops more interested in Gianni’s sex life than his brutal death: Another violation, and he hasn’t washed his lover’s blood off his tennis whites. In this not-distant-enough past, so much of gay identity was secret identity. And Cunanan’s rampage occurred because law enforcement agencies didn’t care about gay people. (And they knew it.)
But there’s something flimsy in the foundation. I’m a fan of Criss, who ranks high in our Sacred Council of Darrens (right behind Aronofsky and the First One From Bewitched). But the structure renders Cunanan a bogeyman, and it’s only later in the season that he gets to shade him with real depth. And the portrait of the Versace family feels respectful to the point of hagiography. Ramírez is trapped in a conventional great-man biopic, while Penélope Cruz as sister Donatella mouths fashion-industry bromides like “For a woman, a dress is a weapon.” I love the show’s willingness to explore everyone orbiting Cunanan’s murder spree, but the central characters feel held at a worshipful remove. Oddly, Versace is best when it leaves Versace behind.
Murphy’s FX anthologies comprise a welcome revisionist history of injustice, of what had been accepted truths or simply ignored in the past, from the misogynistic ’60s of Feud: Bette and Joan (and even American Horror Story: Asylum) through the identity-soaked ’90s bloodshed of American Crime Story. Versace is a middling work in this corpus, but the message still shakes you. You want to reach through the TV screen to these men suffering in the shadows and promise them: “It gets better!” Won’t it? B