The second season of Ryan Murphy’s ‘American Crime Story’ anthology series is not what it seems.

Given how different the second season of American Crime Story is from the first, there’s really no use in comparing them. But I can’t help it (no one can?). The People v. O.J. Simpson was a big deal, initially so popular because of the nostalgia and the appeal of seeing re-creations of the “trial of the century” with John Travolta camping it up as Robert Shapiro, but then so celebrated for its breakout performances. Sterling K. Brown was a relative unknown before the series. Sarah Paulson saw a boost in her career, as well. The Assassination of Gianni Versace doesn’t have as well-known a story. Its ensemble isn’t so packed with famous names, with its characters or the actors portraying them. The follow-up series can therefore be surprisingly disparate. But it nevertheless does a good job of pulling us into what it offers.

Even if we can forgive the unfair expectations, though, Ryan Murphy’s latest production is a bit of a bait and switch. The first two episodes of The Assassination of Gianni Versace promise as much of an operatically tinged biopic about fashion icons Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz) as the circumstances of his murder. Ricky Martin is there and impresses as Gianni’s longtime partner, Antonio D’Amico. These are the promoted stars of the show, and yet they’re not in very much of the ensuing chapters. When they are on screen, they’re incredible and worth the wait, but the irregularity of their involvement is more shocking than any contrast against the O.J. installment of this anthology program. I’ve seen eight of the nine episodes (all that were shared with press in advance), and they’re a mixed bag.

The series might as well be called The Assassin of Gianni Versace because it’s almost completely about Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the spree killer who finished out a five-murder run when he shot Gianni in the face outside the fashion designer’s Miami Beach mansion. After depicting the murder in the pilot then continuing with a bouncing-around of time to show a years-earlier meeting between Versace and Cunanan and also some of the police investigation, the series jumps rewinds in chronology with each episode. Watched all together, the structure is reminiscent of the movie Memento. It also plays like each chapter is a prequel to the one that came prior. Villains tend to get such backstories to reveal their fall from innocence to become the evil monster we were originally introduced to. But not in backward spurts.

Marilyn Miglin Re CSo we follow in reverse as Cunanan’s other killings are shown. The middle episodes of the series are sort of like standalone vignettes presenting who the victims were and how they met their end. Episode three (“A Random Killing”) is particularly strong as its own thing, mostly thanks to how it plays as a character piece about Marilyn Miglin, wife of the murdered Lee Miglin, and for Judith Light‘s exceptional guest performance in the role. It’s the peak chapter of the show (so far) for me, even if it’s the first instance where we realize The Assassination of Gianni Versace isn’t going to actually have much Versace in it. And that it’s scarier, gorier, more akin to Murphy’s American Horror Story than the sort of legal drama we saw with The People v. O.J. Simpson. For the next few episodes, these are the tales of a true American psycho.

Spree killers can be interesting, though they aren’t always as compelling as serial killers or one-off murderers. The former lends to psychological character studies, the latter more to whodunits and courtroom procedurals such as the first American Crime Story season. Apologies for the spoiler, but there was no trial for Cunanan, as he took his own life before he could even be apprehended. So instead of moving forward in time and dealing with retroactive explanations and defensive claims in the form of legal proceedings a la The People v. O.J. Simpson, here we get an attempt to connect the dots that may provide some understanding of Cunanan’s bloodshed. Of course, most of what we see is, while not necessarily fictionalized, certainly full of speculation. Many scenes solely involve people not around to provide details.

The series never makes a definite case for the why. We will never know what exactly triggered Cunanan to kill two of his friends, one of his many closeted and married lovers, a random cemetery worker, and a fashion legend whom he may or may not have ever met beforehand. In its best-directed episodes (the Murphy-helmed first, as well as the three by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, including “A Random Killing”) The Assassination of Gianni Versace doesn’t even explicitly spell out everything going on from scene to scene, which is respectably trusting of the intelligence and attention of the audience. The real question explored, as it is in the journalistic and more pointedly titled book it’s based on, “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History,” is how did authorities let one of the most wanted men in America elude capture so long that Versace’s slaying could occur.

That inquiry takes this story through a cloud of themes and contexts pertaining to being a gay man in the ’90s. Not unlike The People v. O.J.‘s essential addresses of race and gender as it informed and mattered to the case of O.J. Simpson and the arguments and conduct of the trial, The Assassination of Gianni Versace touches on how homosexuality was viewed and treated at the time and how Cunanan and his victims’ lives were impacted by the difficulties and dangers of both secrecy and disclosure (one episode even focuses on the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy), the HIV/AIDS scare and eventual life-saving drug cocktails that arrived mid-decade, and the plethora of stereotypes. But it’s all kind of tricky, as viewers shouldn’t come away focused on the story’s unavoidable alignment with the “depraved homosexual” trope.

Antonio Gianni Pebble Room Re

Murphy manages to avoid crossing any lines that could generally offend, I think. Where he doesn’t succeed as well is in the attempt to integrate the Versaces’ story with that of Cunanan. Following the first two episodes, Gianni and Donatella, joined often by Antonio, only sporadically return to the narrative. Initially they’re welcome distractions, but their part in the whole thing becomes inconsistently significant. Weak parallels are made, including one very bad cross-cutting between the nervous coming-out moments of Gianni and another character. Other times it seems like the series is just taking us back to the Versaces randomly now and then because they’re famous persons of interest, there are real events that can be reenacted, and well, Ramirez, Cruz, and Martin are deservedly the primary draw.

As Cunanan, Criss is also pretty phenomenal and this should be a breakout performance for the lesser-known former Glee regular. But the character becomes less interesting over time  (especially during a binge-watch, as I experienced them). It’s a tough task to pull off such a mysteriously maniacal charlatan and have him carry a nine-week program so prominently without humanizing the monster too much nor depicting him as an unrealistically heightened caricature. Criss makes it work in spite of the character’s absence of complexity, coming off as a clever yet deranged Clark Kent who never felt loved enough to become a superman with his strengths rather than a villain. Still, the actor is overshadowed by Light and the uncannily perfect Ramirez and often unintelligible but magnificently committed Cruz.

Without seeing the finale, which is being held and which will surely return to the setting of the first two episodes (many viewers will suddenly be reminded after two months that Orange is the New Black‘s Dascha Polenco, as a police detective on the case, once seemed to be one of the stars) I can’t make a call on the series as a whole. But even halfway in it was clear that The Assassination of Gianni Versace is an uneven and sometimes disappointing take on this true-crime story. But as usual with Murphy’s shows, there is enough good to outweigh the bad. They’re mainly watchable for their casting and slew of standout performances — this one even slips Cathy Moriarty in for a bit role and Aimee Mann gets a nice cameo. And the attention to detail in the production design here will make you feel like you’re literally going backwards in time with the narrative.

It’s also worth remembering that these series are never perfect. Even The People v. O.J. Simpson has tons of flaws but might be misremembered as being more substantial than it is if you also saw the documentary O.J.: Made in America around the same time (perhaps all of these true story based anthology shows could use an unaffiliated but complimentary documentary accompaniment). Of course, they also tend to be more fun. The Assassination of Gianni Versace is dark without the camp and levity that fans are likely to anticipate. Whether it will manage to keep most viewers tuning in anyway, I don’t know. But I recommend at least watching the fantastic first three episodes.

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