When The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story first aired, I immediately started comparing the famous cast to the infamous people of interest they were playing, because I had some working knowledge of the real-life events. When American Crime Story: Versace first aired, I thought, “Wait, why is Darren Criss so scary?” and “Is this one even based on real life?”
It could be that I grew up in L.A. and not Miami, or maybe my parents didn’t want to tell a 6-year-old me that the FBI was looking for a charismatic young man who killed at least five people, but I didn’t know squat about this crime until I started watching. I’d venture that many people will be entering this season with a similar ignorance, and that makes this season darkly exciting to watch, and has inspired me to do a lot of homework.
The show starts in ‘90s Miami Beach, and if you get The Birdcage vibes, that’s cause YAS girl, the timing roughly fits! It’s 1997, and the colors are bright and beautiful – the pool basically belongs on a spam Instagram account. The maids bowing to Gianni Versace in the morning creeped me out a bit, but I was too distracted with the tiling to care. Oh, and we meet Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan while he’s getting a wicked sunburn on the beach.
The quick jump to earlier ‘90s San Francisco threw me a bit, because I felt like I was watching a totally different Cunanan than seconds before. As the episode went on, though, I realized that’s how I was supposed to feel. The man was a shapeshifter and a bit of a ham. I fact-checked several of the charming things he said, only to find it was half true and half lies. He lies about his parents’ names, but the thing about his dad being from the Philippines and his mom being Italian American are true. Later in the episode we see him copy the emotional reaction of another person, and you realize just how often and how much he’s acting.
The episode’s director, Ryan Murphy, has made it clear that this show is going to be about the rampant homophobia of the time, which feels terrifyingly recent. It actually really matters how many characters in this show are going to be gay, and some are played by gay actors. (I’m a Ricky Martin fan, what can I say? Did you know his twin boys are 9 years old now?!) Seeing gay bad guys and good guys in the same scenes, or at least on the same show, feels like a win for nuanced representation. One such gay good guy is brought to life by Dascha Polanco, who you may know from Orange Is The New Black. Polanco plays detective Lori Wieder, who was one of the two openly gay members of the Miami Beach police at the time.
I actually found myself feeling intense sadness for Versace (Edgar Ramirez) when we do see him shot, despite the fact that all I knew of him at that point was that he had beautiful fruit breakfasts. He was immediately painted as warm, maybe because we see him gently touch people a lot. The mourning was seriously bumped up when we first see Penelope Cruz donning platinum blonde hair as Donatella, and you imagine what it would actually be like to walk past your dead brother’s blood on the way into his impeccable home.
The Versace family has been outspoken that this show will be a work of fiction, but I was still excited to see a portrayal of the iconic matriarch. Her presence seemed to mark a decided change in the episode, and a feeling sank in that the rest of the season would be like a war between her team and the cops and media hoping to splash the details of her brother’s life all over the papers without actually catching the man responsible. The moment where she puts a porcelain bust ever so slightly back in its place leads me to believe she will not be forgiving of mistakes, and her immediate TCBing (taking care of business) have me excited to watch her take on the role of a general. We catch a glimpse of Cruz as Donatella’s simultaneous softness and hardness when she delivers the most beautifully sad line of the episode saying, “They’ll judge the killer yes, but they’ll judge the victim, too.”
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