One of the most highly anticipated series of the year, American Crime Story returned to television with its second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, focussing on Andrew Cunanan’s murdering spree in the 1990s. It comes off the back of its first season, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which was met with widespread critical acclaiming, winning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series, along with awards for its stars Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, and Sterling K. Brown. To say that The Assassination of Gianni Versace had a lot of weight on its shoulders to be good would be an understatement, as The People vs. O.J. Simpson set up the anthology series to be one of the best in all television, and to say that it delivered to those high standards would be difficult, but what we have is a high quality series nonetheless.
In terms of the show’s narrative structure, it takes a different approach to the first series as we start with the titular murder in the very first scene, and then work back episode by episode, before the finale focussing on the aftermath of Versace’s murder. This gives us a different approach to the way that we view the characters, which is vital in a series such as this which tells such a tragic event. The first we see of the murderous Andrew Cunanan, played brilliantly by Darren Criss, is of him preparing to murder, and then murdering fashion designer Gianni Versace, who is precisely portrayed by the excellent Edgar Ramirez. As we work backwards through the series, we unravel more and more information about Cunanan, as we see him not falling into the normal characteristics of what we see normally portrayed in serial killers in fiction. This is because, as crazy as the story is, its a true story, and the producers of the show have a fine balancing act in the way that they portray these characters, almost all of whom end up with a demise of some sort or another. They pull this off to great effect, as the covering of multiple time periods allows us to see the characters at their highest and lowest points, in particular Cunanan, who becomes the focus of the series and leads to the real question trying to be answered- why did he do the things he did?
In his portrayal of Cunanan, Darren Criss does an outstanding job in what is a complicated role. He completely runs the show, as he gets to be flamboyant, confident, yet slimy and creepy, helped by the dramatic irony that comes with the show as we see what Cunanan is capable of, and with this in mind stops the audience for having much sympathy for him. Criss’ dedication to the role is admirable, and with a lesser actor in the role, the show may completely collapse, that’s the level of intensity he brings to the table. In supporting roles, Edgar Ramirez is uncanny as Versace, and he really takes control of the scenes that he is in. Some have complained about the lack of insight we see into Versace’s life, yet personally I found it satisfactory due to the way that Ramirez really gets down to the nitty gritty of the character in the limited scenes that he is in for us to get an impression of what he was like. In recurring roles, Cody Fern and Finn Wittrock are mesmerizing as David Madson and Jeff Trail, respectively, with the episodes that they appear being real highlights of the series, in particular “House by the Lake”, which is an incredibly intense episode with the opening 10-15 minutes almost being like something out of a horror film. Also in Guest Roles, Judith Light brings real emotional heft to her role as Marilyn Miglin, particularly in “A Random Killing”, which is a real tour-de-force for her, and Jon Jon Briones is really terrific in the final two episodes of the series as Andrew’s father, with his scenes with Criss towards the end “Creator / Destroyer” being another series highlight. However, Penelope Cruz’s performance as Donatella Versace came across as quite wooden, and didn’t quite match the tone of the series, which is a shame due to her being such a talented and experienced actress, especially alongside mostly character actors, who very much steal the show from her.
Taking on a different challenge from the first season, with this being more of a character study and asking why, rather than a ‘whodunit’, FX has made American Crime Story to be a force to be reckoned with the way that it can seemlessly approach different kinds of crime, which bodes well for the upcoming seasons of the show. Does the series match the dizzy heights of The People vs. O.J. Simpson? Not quite, but it does manage to tell this story in the right way- honouring the victims of these crimes, it’s deeply reflective and portrays the real tragedy of the events, and does it in its own stylistic way that is fitting to the 21st century television audience.