American Crime Story: Versace Complicates The Serial Killer Tale

Photo: Courtesy of FX/Jeff Daly.
Serial killers have always been a macabre form of titillation, but it feels like they’re having an especially big moment right now. Mindhunter introduced us to the people who first coined the term. TNT’s upcoming The Alienist will put a period piece twist on serial killing. And, American Horror Story has been trafficking in the topic for years. Now, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s other FX brainchild, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, will tell TV’s latest serial killer tale from an entirely different perspective. While watching Versace, premiering January 17, be prepared to ask yourself, “Am I sympathizing with a mass murderer?”
Where ACS’s premiere season, The People v. O. J. Simpson, took great pains to investigate the lives of the lawyers behind the “Trial Of the (20th) Century,” Versace isn’t nearly as preoccupied with the lives of the people who make up the justice system. You’ll see the police officer hot on the trail of Versace’s villain, serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss at his most frightening), but you shouldn’t expect to check in with their kids every week. Or, for that matter, even remember if these cops have kids.
Although this is mostly a good choice on the anthology’s part, it means fans will see less of Orange Is The New Black’s Dascha Polanco, who plays Miami Beach detective Lori Wieder. The real-life cop was one of the two openly gay members of the police force during the actual 1997 hunt for Andrew Cunanan, according to the book Versace was based upon, Vulgar Favors. Since ACS takes great pains to explore the pervasive homophobia of the late ‘90s, it would have been great to see the miniseries explore the perspective of lesbian woman of color in such a traditionally conservative, male world. Alas, with all but one episode made available to critics, it looks like Versace didn’t find the time for such a deep dive.
While the lack of much law enforcement intrigue means less of Polanco, her button-ups, and certain nuanced looks at the LGBTQ+ sphere, it means there is a lot more time to spend with the person who commits Versace’s titular Assassination, Criss’ Andrew, and the victim of that assassination, iconic designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez). Thanks to the lush settings, beautiful clothes, and so-good-they’re-scary performances, it’s extra time you’ll appreciate.
We first meet these men on the morning one of them will slaughter the other on the steps of his own home. We know little about them other than the fact Cunanan is a person clearly battling some dangerous demons; Versace, on the other hand, starts his tranquil mornings by putting on his self-designed boxer briefs. Cunanan screams on the beach while carrying around a gun and an obsession with powerful men. Versace takes in the views of that beach from his overwhelmingly grand seaside palace. These are two men who seem like they couldn’t live in worlds farther apart.
The trick of Crime Story season 2 is in trying to convince you murderer and victim aren’t very different at all. Criss’ version of Cunanan, like all true-to-life reports of the infamous serial killer, reveals a shockingly likable, charismatic man, in a similar style to Versace’s genuine, beloved presence. The only difference is, Cunanan’s charming persona masks a violent, disturbing pit of cruelty.
We’re not dealing with the generally unattractive, immediately unnerving imprisoned murderers of Mindhunter here. Rather, Cunanan is a predator who hunts by camouflage. Because his hunting grounds are the highest, most expensive echelons of gay culture, he perfectly embodies the ideals of that time. He’s handsome. He’s inviting. He has the right watch. Even though you know Cunanan is actually a serial killer, it’s difficult not to enjoy simply seeing him move through the less bloody portions of Versace — and that’s the point. All of those little feigned personality manipulations are what helped Andrew Cunanan get away with actual murder for so long.
But, Cunanan isn’t all flash and likability. He’s also an obsessive killer who ended the lives of at least five men. That is why most people I’ve talked to about the show immediately yell, “Darren Criss is so scary!” and admit to having nightmares about the guy best known for being Blaine from Glee. Darren Criss is so scary in Versace, putting on and removing Andrew Cunanan's many masks — affable, gay up-and-comer, heterosexual fashionisto, stone cold killer – on a second-by-second basis solely rooted in whatever suits him best in a precise moment. At times, you watch him copy emotions obvious to others around him as a simple way to go sight unseen. It’s chilling.
If people’s first reaction to Crime Story season 2 is to shriek in terror over Andrew Cunanan, their second is, and should be, swooning over the strength of Penelope Cruz as Gianni Versace’s devastated, famed sister Donatella Versace. Many people could be considered the beating heart of the series, including Gianni himself or his bereaved boyfriend Antonio D'Amico (Ricky Martin), but Donatella is its unquestionable powerhouse. From the second you see a grief-stricken Donatella in all her platinum blonde glory enter the proceedings, still wearing an all-leather ensemble despite the Miami heat, you know she isn’t here to play.
And play she does not, moving from stone-willed business woman to furious sister to heartbroken woman and back again with ease. As a well-known crier, it’s no surprise seeing Donatella stumble through her own brother’s bloody murder scene and deal with the subsequent shocking trauma brought me to tears. But, I doubt i’ll be the only one frantically searching for tissues while taking in Cruz's homage to Donatella.
So, yes, American Crime story might be yet another show about serial killers, but it's also one about family, loss, and the many masks we use to get by. And, that's why you should watch Versace.
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