WHAT IT’S ABOUT Fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed by a lone gunman when walking outside his Miami Beach villa in 1997. This second of Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” series, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” begins on a brilliant sunny morning, with Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) stalking Versace (Edgar Ramirez) after he returns home. The police response is bungled, in part because the FBI had not distributed posters of Cunanan, already wanted in a string of murders, including wealthy Chicago businessman Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell, appearing in later episodes), and two Cunanan friends, former Navy officer Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and Minneapolis architect David Madson (Cody Fern). After Versace’s murder, his sister Donatella (Penélope Cruz) arrives to figure out what to do with the empire, and with her brother’s lover, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin). This nine-parter is based on Maureen Orth’s 1999 book, “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.”
MY SAY “Versace” is a story told in reverse. This begins at the beginning — the shooting of Versace on July 15, 1997 — then proceeds backward, year by year and crime by crime. Criss’ Cunanan starts off as a fully formed monster, then devolves from there. As a point of comparison, imagine that he enters the series as Frankenstein, then with each subsequent week, a new body part is subtracted, until the penultimate episode, when he is simply a beating heart.
If this sounds confusing, it’s not. If it sounds macabre and horrifying, then that it most definitely is. In an electrifying performance, Criss spins his character’s lies so deftly that the violence that invariably follows them is a blow to the solar plexus. When he smiles brightly, the psycho middle-distance stare also follows, and he then pulls out the gun from his waistband.
Nevertheless, this reverse narrative was a risky decision by Murphy because it places viewers in the awkward position of omniscience. As they move backward in time, they know what’s coming before the victims do. Cunanan becomes more despicable, but less comprehensible. Why this horrifying string of murders? The question hangs there, while an answer hovers just beyond reach, taunting viewers, like Banquo's ghost.
Reasonably enough, neither “Versace” nor Criss wanted to humanize Cunanan, so they dehumanized him instead. They also succeeded so well that they undercut both the premise and title of the entire miniseries. This is called “the assassination” of Versace as an indictment of mid-’90s America, which kept the closet closed on so many gay men, or forced someone like Trail out of the "don't ask don't tell" Navy, or allowed a murder spree like this to happen due to homophobia in the police response.
But as far as the first eight episodes are concerned (the only ones offered for review), Versace wasn’t “assassinated” any more than John Lennon was “assassinated.” They were killed by loner psychotic men armed with handguns. This alone makes “Versace” even sadder and scarier, as much a real-life “American Horror Story” as an “American Crime” one.
You’ll also want to know whether this is as good as “The People v. O.J. Simpson” (the first “ACS”), and the answer is no. Based on the Orth book, “Versace” still goes well beyond the book to re-create dialogue that no one could ever possibly know. The creative license is justified but hardly airtight. “O.J.” had Jeffrey Toobin’s book and the vast reportorial record. This has a cipher (Cunanan) and supposition at its core.
There are many pleasures here, however, and they are entirely in the craftsmanship. There are some superb performances — Judith Light as the repressed widow of Miglin is stunning — and it’s hard to think of one that isn’t good. “Versace” gets the little things right. It’s the bigger picture that’s the problem.
BOTTOM LINE Sorry, not as good as “O.J.,” but Criss turns in a dynamic performance in service of a desperately sad story.