Early on into the second season of American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the titular victim, portrayed by Edgar Ramirez, is outfitting an opera singer with a dress and gives away his secret. He makes a number of final alterations and explains to her that the way he can tell if a piece is done is when the model looks happy in it, not when he’s happy with it. It’s the pleasure, trust, and comfort of others that gives him satisfaction, even as he follows his own unique track of taste when envisioning his latest lines of clothing.
The importance and danger of carefully tailored aesthetics is at the heart of Ryan Murphy‘s latest, in which he serves as executive producer and directs the first episode. Just as Versace tailored his works to suit the humans who wore them, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the man who killed Versace, tailored everything from his outfit to the way he spoke to blend in, to not be noticed unless he specifically wanted to be. He is the inverse of Versace, whose creations bore a boldness that initially hid his homosexuality and HIV-positive status. The show harps on the contrasting forces of Versace’s awakening as an out gay man with money, vision, and a dedicated partner (Ricky Martin) and Cunanan’s expertise at creating a pleasant, seemingly thoughtful exterior to hide an eternal emptiness. It’s interesting material but not long in, you wonder if that’s all Murphy and his creative team have on their mind.
In truth, the style of exteriors that Versace and Cunanan glom onto respectively feeds into one of Murphy’s chief obsessions: the art of storytelling. Where Versace uses stories to open up others and connect with them, Cunanan is written as a nimble yet desperate creator of his own history and personal experience. In an early scene, he’s confronted by a would-be lover about his constant lying, and eventually icily tell his friend that he just does what he has to fit in. It’s why he prepares a story about his mother’s time in Italy for Versace, who seemingly constantly ached for the days of his youth and his mother’s home in Calabria. In Murphy and company’s estimation, what both of these men understand is how personality and experience grip people, whether they happen to be illusory or not.
It would be unfair to say that Murphy’s series, as written by Tom Rob Smith, is as empty as Cunanan comes off as in the first few episodes, but there is a certain feeling of coasting here. The variety of personalities and levels of intimate detail that powered the first season of American Crime Story has been narrowed here to largely focus just on murderer and victim. Murphy and Smith add a number of characters to fill out the story, most notably Penelope Cruz‘s Donatella Versace, Gianni’s little sister and inheritor of his empire, but there’s a beguiling hesitancy to dig into their own interior lives in the same manner as Versace, Cunanan, and, to a far lesser extent, Martin’s Antonio D’Amico. The series’ one potent thematic idea is worn down to a nub by the time the third episode begins.
What’s left is all plot, a wildly interesting and entertaining story filmed and told competently with exuberant performances, but without much to say about what Versace’s death or Cunanan’s murder spree meant to Smith and Murphy. The only scenes that really pop are those in which Cunanan is trying to figure people out and, in response, attempts to figure his own sense of performance out. There’s a hypnotic sequence in which he nearly suffocates a potential victim with duct tape as he dances around in bikini briefs to Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover.” In moments like these, there’s a feeling that the show is trying to retread a similar path as American Psycho in critiquing an obsession with veneers and frivolous culture over the interior and personal mettle but it’s developed haphazardly and there’s no attempt to dig into the politics of the 1990s with any seriousness.
Most of all, The Assassination of Gianni Versace feels like Murphy’s victory lap after The People vs. O.J. Simpson did so well, both critically and amongst audiences. For all its weightlessness, Smith’s writing is propulsive and not without its flourishes of wit, and the cast elevates the more monotonous passages with physical vigor and an unwaveringly attentive sense of timing and delivery. Versace and Antonio’s relationship is delicately and convincingly rendered, which initially gives off the sense that Murphy is also attempting to discuss and critique the perception of AIDS, the fashion world, celebrities, and gay relationships in the 90s. If that’s so, none of it hits home beyond a base fascination, and the show’s creators seem a bit apprehensive of getting into the messy details, as much as their depiction of a working artist as with the meticulous planning of a serial killer or the building of a celebrity’s public persona and subsequent personal repression.
For those who have a fascination with serial killers, there’s bound to be something here that will exhilarate, even in its flippant treatment of sociopathic behavior and obsession. There’s even a notable reference to Tom Noonan‘s Red Dragon in Michael Mann‘s Manhunter that makes Murphy’s fondness for serial-killer dramas of the 1980s and 1990s palpable, but the style that he and his creative team fashion here is neither as dazzling and captivating as Versace’s nor as deceptive and studied as Cunanan’s. What might have been a furious reflection on the worth of style and aesthetic as compared to the humanity encased within such frames and settings is boiled down to an extensive Wikipedia page, more interested in the facts of the case than why the case was so important and shocking to the zeitgeist in the first place.
Rating: ★★ – Fair; Only for the dedicated.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace premieres on January 19th