'The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' Review: Episodes 1 And 2

FX's American Crime Story is back with an all new season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which takes on yet another 1990s-based murder. Unlike the sprawling focus of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, however, The Assassination of Gianni Versace focuses in on one individual, and explores the path of destruction he created with his actions. Our first The Assassination of Gianni Versace review looks at the first two episodes of the season: "The Man Who Would Be Vogue" and "Manhunt."

Within the first few minutes of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, it becomes clear this is a different beast than the first season. Besides the obvious difference in subject matter, The Assassination of Gianni Versace operates on a completely different wavelength than People vs, O.J., and its different tone and atmosphere are immediately apparent.

Where as People vs. O.J. was bathed in shadow, even during the day with the California smog making full-blown sunshine impossible, Versace is sun-dappled, opening on the pink-hued, picturesque locals of Miami Beach. If you had been expecting Versace to work its way up to its titular slaying, the first episode of the season, "The Man Who Would Be Vogue," will catch you completely off guard: the murder of the fashion mogul happens in the beginning of the show.

There's a slight build-up: director Ryan Murphy gives us a study in contrasts. We watch as the wealthy Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) rises in his breezy, gorgeous mansion and begins his relaxing, pampered day, all while the sweaty, nervous Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) stalks around the beach, living out of a backpack. Cunanan staggers into the crystal clear water and shrieks, half-laughing, half in agony. And then he sets about his foul deed.

Who are these people? Versace doesn't really introduce them, but in these first few minutes we know exactly who they are. We know Versace is a man who has it all: huge house, lots of money, a steady romantic partner – Antonio D'Amico, played by Ricky Martin – and a lust for life; and we know Cunanan is a man who has literally nothing. And yet that man with nothing is able to quite casually take everything Versace has away with few shots from a handgun.

Just as The People vs. O.J. was not really about O.J. Simpson,  The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not really about Gianni Versace. Instead, it uses Versace's death as a starting point to track the life and crimes of Andrew Cunanan, a con artist and serial killer who was able to evade capture for so long due to indifference. Cunanan was a gay man preying on other gay men – crimes that law enforcement weren't necessarily chomping at the bit to solve in the 1990s. Homosexuality, and society's reaction to its culture, is the overarching narrative hook of Versace, as racism was for People vs. O.J.

As episode one unfolds, you get the sense that Ryan Murphy and company are trying to ease the audience into what this new season is going to be while hitting beats familiar to the first season. After Versace is gunned down, the narrative begins jumping around, showing a clearly out-of-its-depth police force already beginning to bungle this huge murder case, as well as ghoulish souvenir hunters willing to break through the police tape to dab a torn-out Versace magazine ad in a pool of the slain fashion designers blood. Penélope Cruz's Donatella Versace enters the picture, and proceeds to steal the show. Cruz nails the real Donatella's voice, but also makes the character her own – a brooding-yet-imposing figure trying to figure out how to keep the Versace name (and brand) alive now that her brother is dead. Flashbacks also begin – and these are what you need to start paying attention to. Because as episode two makes clear, the whole show is going to consist of flashbacks.

The Man Who Would Be Vogue presents a scene that the Versace family insists never happened: a moment where Cunanan meets and charms his way into Versace's life years before the murder. Whether or not this event actually happened is irrelevant – this scene exists to start revealing to us who Cunanan is: a charming, manipulative psychopath, able to sweet-talk his way into seemingly anyone's life.

Here is The Assassination of Gianni Versace's biggest strength and weakness. Darren Criss' performance is remarkable – the type of committed, engrossing work that gets labeled as "career defining" and wins awards. Yet it's nearly impossible to empathize with Cunanan. One of the People vs. O.J.'s greatest strengths was finding a way to make nearly every character (save possibly Simpson himself) relatable. Even blow-hard lawyer Johnnie Cochran was given a sympathetic, or at least empathetic, backstory. As Versace moves forward, or rather, backward (more on that below), Cunanan becomes worse – a cruel, unfeeling creature who kills with impunity.

American Crime Story Penelope Cruz

Episode 2, "Manhunt," is the first episode that truly reveals the narrative format the show will be taking. Like Christopher Nolan's Memento or Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, Versace is a story told in reverse. Every episode jumps back to events that occurred just before the previous episode. So while "The Man Who Would Be Vogue" has Cunanan already in Miami Beach, about to murder Versace, "Manhunt" presents us with his arrival – blowing into town in a red pickup truck, blasting and singing along to Laura Branigan's "Gloria." This brief, amusing moment is perhaps the most likable Cunanan will ever seem in the series. Once he arrives in Miami Beach, however, he instantly begins working the angles, needlessly lying about his past to a hotel manager as he takes up residence in her run-down, pastel-colored hotel by the sea.

One in Miami Beach, Cunanan befriends a local named Ronnie (Max Greenfield), but it's not entirely clear what, if anything, Cunanan wants out of the friendship, other than perhaps someone to spend time with as he waits to make his big move against Versace. Ronnie is HIV positive, although he never quite comes out and says that. He instead mentions being sick, and then asks Cunanan, "Are you sick?" The vagueness allows the question to linger – Cunanan is not HIV positive, but he has a different sickness somewhere inside him; a sickness robbing him of empathy, driving him to do his terrible deeds.

Sickness is what opens Manhunt as well. In a rather heartbreaking mini-movie taking place right before the title card, we get a whirlwind tour of events in Versace's life. The fashion designer arrives at a hospital, incognito, and travels down a lonely wing where he sees two sick, dying men laying side by side in hospital beds. Versace is sick, and yet again, the show takes a vague approach to his illness. It's heavily implied here that Versace has AIDS or is HIV positive, but the Versace family disputes this claim. According to them, the fashion designer had ear cancer. Tom Rob Smith, who wrote the script and helped develop the season, maintains he talked to off-the-record sources who confirmed Versace had HIV. Whether or not Versace did, this moment is intended to establish the fashion designer looking death in the face – and coming back from the brink.

Later in the episode, we see Versace talking about how he feels healthy and alive again, and how he wants his designs to reflect life. But here, in this opening, the focus shifts abruptly from Versace coming to terms with his illness, to Versace's body being prepared in the morgue – the gaping bullet hole in his face being sealed up so he can be presentable in an open casket. Donatella later arrives, dresses the dead man in a fine suit, and then Versace is cremated. We see all of these minute yet devastating details, and the message is clear: this is what Andrew Cunanan did. With a few bullets, he reduced Versace to a literal pile of ashes – ashes that are soon placed in a gold, ornate box, and flown away on a private jet by Donatella.

"After all he went through, to die like this," she mutters, her glassy gaze on the box. This is the sum total of an iconic life: dust. It's haunting, and it's necessary. Occasionally, Versace will dip into camp territory, but moments like this are essential to remind us that while Cunanan may occasionally seem darkly comedic, he also destroyed lives.

As for Cunanan, "Manhunt" begins to peel back the curtain on him as an individual. Again, Criss' performance is stellar, full of bluster and confidence always masking panic and rage. In Criss' hands, Cunanan is a cross between Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, image-obsessed and possessing the cunning ability to adapt and turn himself into whatever the situation calls for. "Manhunt" even gives him a very Bateman-esque moment, where he dances around a room to pop music as a victim struggles before him. This scene is shocking, starting off amusing and descending into high tension. Hoping to score money for drugs, Cunanan has picked-up an older, closeted man at the beach. They go back to the man's posh hotel room, and Cunanan proceeds to wrap the man's entire head in duct tape – taking away his humanity, removing any trace of personhood. The man struggles to breathe as Cunanan hovers over him, scissors clenched in a fist. Cunanan eventually stabs a hole around the man's mouth so the man can breathe. Later, the act over, Cunanan leaves as if nothing happened at all. The man, clearly traumatized, slips on a wedding ring, picks up the phone, and dials 9-1-1. Yet when the operator asks him what his emergency is, the man whimpers, "Nothing," and hangs up.

This is Cunanan's ultimate power. By preying on closeted gay men, he knows his chances of being caught are slim to none – because law enforcement doesn't care. We get a front row seat to this as FBI agents show up and meet with local cops. The FBI is pretty sure Cunanan is coming to, or already in, Florida. When a local cop suggests they hang Cunanan's WANTED fliers in the gay section of town and start canvasing, the FBI seems utterly indifferent. "This isn't our top priority," they say. In other words: they couldn't care less.

Versace isn't shying away from the implications presented here: that if someone, somewhere, just gave a damn, Versace (and other people) would still be alive, and Andrew Cunanan would've been stopped a lot sooner.

As for Cunanan, he closes out "Manhunt" by letting his mask of sanity slip. While stalking (and failing to find) Versace at a gay nightclub, Cunanan encounters another man. "What do you do?" the man asks. "I'm a serial killer," Cunanan yells into his ear over the pounding music. When the other man at the club asks him to repeat that, Cunanan launches into a laundry list of jobs: "I'm a banker, I'm a stockbroker, I built movie sets, I..."  – here are all Cunanan's various fake identities coming out in one arterial gush. He senses the end is near. Earlier, Ronnie told him that he personally moved to Miami Beach because he once heard that people who don't have much time left to live often decide to live by the water. Cunanan has gotten so far on his wits, and lies, but here, in this moment at the club, you sense that he knows he can't keep this up much longer. You sense that Ronnie's earlier question is echoing in his head.

"Are you sick?"