American Crime Story Versace

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.

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