Ryan Murphy has done it again. After the critical, commercial and awards season hit “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” one wonders how Murphy could top himself for season one. Originally season two was supposed to look at Hurricane Katrina, with Annette Being at the lead. However, things fell apart and the creative team is currently going back to the drawing board. Yet, this pushed up “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” to be the second series in the anthology. In many ways, this appears to be the story most resonate with Ryan Murphy’s brand. Luckily, Murphy delivers with a pilot that is tantalizing, engrossing, beautiful and frightening in equal measures. Upon ending, one salivates for more.
Unlike the O.J. season, we know who the killer is. The episode begins with Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) gunning down Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) on the steps of his Florida mansion. The show jumps back and forth to Andrew and Gianni’s first meeting seven years earlier in San Francisco to the aftermath of the murder. The FBI, led by Agent Evans (Jay R. Ferguson) and Detective Lori Wieder (Dascha Polanco), begins a manhunt after it is confirmed Cunanan is the killer. Meanwhile, Donatella Versace (Penelope Cruz) jets in to mourn her brother and dictate the direction his company will go in.
The show rests squarely on the crown jewel performance from Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. There’s something madly brilliant about his performance that makes it complete Emmy bait. Small moments, such as a horrifically joyous celebration in his car following Versace’s murder, unravel the sociopathic tendencies of Cunanan. Criss doesn’t rest on easy explanations for his character, which makes him even more upsetting. Future episodes promise to examine his murder spree that ended in Versace. As someone who “tells gay men than he’s gay and straight men that he’s straight,” it will be interesting to peer into the lies that led to the incident. Cunanan feels like a cross between Tom Ripley and a modern day social media influencer.
The rest of the cast delivers as well. From the moment she makes her grand entrance, Penelope Cruz reminds us why she’s an Oscar winner. Her Donatella expresses grief but doesn’t let that get in the way of her decision making. This marks a nice contrast between the more ethereal passion exuded by Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace. He makes him a figure easy to fall in love with and sidesteps making him a caricature. Ricky Martin reeks of stunt casting as Gianni’s lover Antonio D’Amica. However, he equips himself better than expected. Future episodes promise to delve into the battle of coming out for Gianni and how that impacts his company. Much like how O.J. dramatized racial and sexist tensions, this show will excel the more it contextualizes homophobia during this time.
The episode radiates with visual splendor. Gianni Versace regales Andrew with the story of how he fell in love with a sculpture of Medusa. Just as this sculpture influenced Versace’s brand, Versace’s brand influenced the production design and costume design of the show. Versace’s mansion bursts with color and splendor. This contrasts well with the apartment of Andrew’s friend, Elizabeth Cote (Annaleigh Ashford), which is well put together but grey and modern. Who wouldn’t be attracted to the glamorous lifestyle of Versace? Even his gruesome murder, which includes shots of bullet wounds in his head, retains some beauty. One tourist takes a page out of Vogue and dips it in his blood at the scene of the crime. Andrew’s wardrobe also exemplifies his contradictions. He dresses well put together to attract people to him. His clothes are equally unhinged, such as his baggy T-shirt and hat following his murder.
“The People vs O.J. Simpson” ushered in a new era of exploring famous murder cases from the past. Documentaries like “Casting JonBenet” and series such as “Law and Order True Crime: Menendez Brothers” reek of copycat syndrome. Yet, the story of Gianni Versace feels fresh. That’s because its a different approach. We aren’t solving a murder. We’re entering the mind of a sociopath. Combining the psychology that makes “Mindhunter” a success and the soapy entertainment value of Murphy’s other work will pay off in dividends for the show.