By Sam Anteau
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is the second season in the true crime anthology, “American Crime Story.” This season, as its title would suggest, is all about the murder of iconic fashion designer Gianni Versace by spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
As of January 29th, the series will have featured its first two episodes. Judging by these episodes, the show has proven to be a bit of mixed bag. After starting off strong with the premiere, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue,” Versace peters off into a slower pace with “Manhunt.”
That is not to say that the show isn’t worth watching. While the plot and writing lack in some places, it is extremely character driven and, as such, is led by some tremendously talented actors.
Before I go further in my review, it is important to note that the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of the events on which it was based has no bearing on my opinions.
As usual, I’m inclined to be skeptical of anything claiming to be based on a true story. Thus, I am viewing the series purely as a work of fiction, loosely based on true events and the rumors surrounding them.
On paper, Versace’s storyline should be inherently compelling. And in the first episode, it is; working backwards, Versace starts with Cunanan murdering Versace and getting chased down by police.
It is thrilling, and it gives us our first glimpse into the character who, really, tends to steal the spotlight: Andrew Cunanan. All of the scenes feel important in setting up characters and relationships, rather than superfluous to pad runtime.
The second episode, “Manhunt,” does not boast the same strength in plot. There are scenes that feel incredibly out of place, like the spat between Gianni and Donatella before a fashion show.
While it may give a deeper look at their relationship, what it does more successfully is bog down the story. This is not to say there aren’t great moments – one involving duct tape and the song “Easy Lover” (no spoilers) sticks out in particular – but aside from the momentary gems, the story suffers in the second episode.
Another thing that has, thus far, weakened the plot in both episodes is the narrative being told in reverse chronological order. The show seems to jump between time period, managing to confuse the viewer about when a particular plot is taking place.
It takes a couple of these jumps in time to actually get used to that aspect, though I found it just as jarring in the second episode. Instead of being a fresh and interesting way to tell a story, it mostly just confuses an already weak plot.
The characters of Versace are where its heart is. The titular character, Gianni Versace, is extremely likable; passionate, earnest and kind, he offers a welcome softness in the face of Cunanan’s calculated charm.
It is made abundantly clear from the first scene that Versace is friendly and, in turn, well loved. Warm exchanges between he and his house staff, as well as friends he sees on the street, give the impression of demeanor.
Despite only knowing him for one scene, I felt effected and upset by his death at the beginning of the first episode. And the more scenes he has, the more upset I am by his death.
Making less of an impression are Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s lover, and Donatella Versace, Gianni’s sister. Antonio grows more compelling as the story continues, but what makes him interesting is his relationship to Versace. Donatella suffers the same fate.
While they both have some beautifully emotional moments, their primary objective is to be Gianni’s lover and Gianni’s sister, respectively. That said, they are fairly strong supporting characters, given the roles to which they’ve been relegated.
The true star of the show is Cunanan. He is a complex character, to say the least; a compulsive liar and performative conversationalist, we get the immediate feeling that we can’t believe anything he says. His obsession with notoriety is clear in the way that he talks about Versace, as well as the way he repeatedly constructs a false narrative of his life. We see him as a social chameleon that never settles on a true identity.
His ability to manipulate those around him is as impressive as it is chilling. I often find myself almost rooting for him, despite knowing that he murdered five men. That’s the mark of a good villain.
All that said, notable characters would be nothing without their actors. Édgar Ramírez’s easy charm makes Versace’s warmth all the more believable.
It’s difficult to make viewers feel something for the death of a character we just met, but after watching Ramírez’s Versace effortlessly glide throughout his day, we become attached rather quickly. His later, more emotional appearances only endear us to him more.
Ricky Martin’s portrayal of Antonio is just as strong. Though Martin doesn’t have a lot to work with in terms of his character – who, compared to Gianni and Andrew, is not particularly fleshed out as of this point – he does the best with what he’s given.
A scene that really shows off his acting chops is when Antonio is being questioned (rather insensitively) by the police. His defense of his relationship with Versace and his clear grief as he was questioned, still in his bloodstained clothes, were enough to choke me up.
Penelope Cruz absolutely kills it as Donatella Versace. She delivers such depth and emotion that Donatella becomes noteworthy; if Cruz did not play her so excellently, I am sure she would seem almost like an afterthought, which is a tragedy considering the importance of Donatella in her brother’s life.
Though I’m breaking my own rules by mentioning the actual person on which this character is based, I would be doing a disservice to Cruz by not mentioning that she nails Donatella’s voice. As someone familiar with Donatella, I was shocked at how similar Cruz managed to make her voice sound to Donatella’s very specific rasp.
Finally, just as Cunanan steals the show, so does his actor, Darren Criss. Considering I’ve been a pretty big fan of Criss’ going on nine years, I had to ask for a second and third opinion on whether he is actually as incredible in Versace as I think he is to make sure I wasn’t being too biased. Judging by my very small sample size, the consensus is yes.
Criss as Cunanan is delightfully unhinged without becoming a caricature, which is especially difficult when playing a performative character like Cunanan; too heavy handed, and he becomes unconvincing as a character, but too subtle and we completely lose the over-the-top nature crucial to his character.
A particularly impressive moment was when, following the murder of Versace, Cunanan runs to his truck and starts laughing uncontrollably. This could have been done so poorly – potentially coming off like a bad Joker impression – but Criss pulls it off without a hitch. I really can’t wait to see what he does with the rest of this season.
So, leaving my ability to be somewhat objective behind for a moment, I’ll say that I love this show. I have a lot of very specific niches, and one of them is celebrity true crime. That, with the addition of Darren Criss, fashion and LGBT representation, is enough to have me hooked.
However, I will say that if you watch this and don’t find yourself immediately engaged by the characters, you likely aren’t going to be into this show. The characters are what make “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” worth sticking around for, while the plot falls secondary. Either way, it’s definitely worth spending the hour to give it a shot.