When FX announced a new anthology series American Crime Story, from prolific writer/producer/director Ryan Murphy, there was skepticism aplenty. That doubled when we learned that the initial season would revolve around the trial of O.J. Simpson. But to almost everyone’s surprise, The People v. O.J. Simpson was excellent. It was enthralling, wonderfully crafted, and most importantly insightful—the series brought new layers to a well-known event, highlighting the misogyny, bias, and racism that hung over the entire trial like a heavy cloud.
Because of that success, any skepticism went out the window for the second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But while the show had a heavy marketing campaign from FX and debuted a month ago, the series has failed to capture the zeitgeist the same way O.J. did. Ratings are down sharply from the previous season, as there simply didn’t seem to be much interest in a retelling of the murder of the titular fashion designer. However, those that are actually watching Versace know that the show Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith (who penned every episode) have crafted is something wildly different from what the promos would lead you to believe.
Indeed, while the marketing for Versace revolved around the glamorous life of Gianni Versace (played by Edgar Ramirez in the series) and his sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz), the series is something of a bait-and-switch. It opens by showing us a slice of Versace’s life, and the first episode ends with his murder. From then on, the story works backwards, tracing the steps that led to this devastating event. But Versace isn’t the show’s focus—his killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is. Indeed, Versace barely even appears in the show’s third and fourth episodes, as the series puts its focus squarely on Cunanan.
Versace was actually the fifth person Cunanan killed, and the show is now taking its time in providing context to those first few killings, which put Cunanan on the path towards taking Versace’s life. In the process, Murphy and Smith are offering a terrifying portrait of a killer in the vein of American Psycho. The show’s tonal touchstones have far more in common with that film or Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho than they do with any kind of wealth porn or hagiographic story of celebrity.
The series is also really zeroing in on Cunanan’s struggles with his homosexuality, and how that contrasts and compares with Versace’s experience as a gay man—albeit one of wealth and fame. Cunanan was clearly mentally ill from the get-go, constantly lying about things big and small and living in his own fantasyland. He worked as an escort for older, oftentimes wealthy men living in the closet, and the show posits that his jealousy and disgust may have been motivating factors in what led him to kill.
Indeed, the mid to late 1990s were still rife with stigma for homosexuals, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, and Cunanan had zero empathy or sympathy for closeted men who were ashamed of their sexuality. Was this his sole motivation for killing? Probably not, but American Crime Story makes a compelling case for it to have been a factor nevertheless.