‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ Delivers Operatic Story of Obsession and Murder

With Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor playing over opulent images, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace announces itself as an operatic tale of decadent murder. It is the latest installment of the “American Crime Story” series on FX, which had its massively successful premiere last year with “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” This new season moves to a different rhythm, especially because the crime it follows is different from the Simpson case in nearly every aspect. But it is still fascinating, with stand-out performances and visual flare. If the O.J. trial made for thrilling courtroom drama, the Versace case feels like those engrossing true crime books you fly through because of the details and personalities involved. In a way crime stories are always captivating because the how’s and whys of many crimes say much about human nature. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is about hidden identities, desperation to belong, the vanity of fame and obsession morphing into a vicious killer instinct.

Darren Criss stars as Andrew Cunanan, a young go getter who spends his time maneuvering around the California gay scene while giving various people different explanations as to who he is. At one point a friend who happens to be in love with him complains that Cunanan is always lying (“I heard you say you’re Jewish. You’re Catholic, like me”). Cunanan feels as if he’s finally reached a golden door when he meets world famous designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) at a San Francisco nightclub. He attends an opera with set design by Versace and gets close to the designer, especially by appealing to his Italian roots with vivid, biographical inventions. Eventually the relation spirals into murder, and as the bullets fly and Versace falls, we meet the other characters in this drama, including Versace’s partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) and his sister, the stern Donatella (Penelope Cruz). As an FBI manhunt ensues for Cunanan, the show moves back in time to follow his trajectory from leech to assassin.

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” starts off as a mixture of manhunt and set of portraits. The season opener flows in and out of Cunanan’s journey and the murder of Versace. Unlike the O.J. Simpson season, this one is more about the lead up to the crime and its chaotic aftermath.  The characters are a gallery of a jaded set of social circles where appearance is everything. Criss plays Cunanan like a walking compulsive disorder, obsessing over Versace while terrified of ever opening up his true self to anyone. He lies to mask his own, torturous insecurities. Following him around is like watching a series about history’s endless parade of haunted, famous shooters like Arthur Bremer or Sirhan Sirhan, men who somehow took paths in life that led them to aim a weapon at a major public figure. Cunanan can’t help himself but steal anything that can enhance the persona he wants to create, whether a suit from the couple he’s crashing with to someone’s opera glasses at the theater. It’s endlessly intriguing to watch him as played by Criss, as a person both socially awkward and harboring hidden violence.

Ramirez’s Versace is a refined ego. We meet him already secure in his wealth, wandering the sensuous halls of his mansion adorned with classical art. His resemblance to the real man is uncanny but Ramirez isn’t imitating, he is channeling an individual used to the good life. The supporting cast also manage to create entertaining roles out of real life. Ricky Martin demonstrates he’s capable of authentic, controlled range. In one of his best scenes Martin is interrogated by a police officer who asks questions typical of homophobia that was more common than post-90s viewers might think. Penelope Cruz is a melodrama master here, playing Donatella with intimidating presence. She even gets the lisp right, but is obviously having fun in this role.

Because this was one of the 90’s more glamorous tragedies, set in the world of high fashion and underground nightlife, it naturally opens itself to a more pulp crime environment than the first season. In one darkly humorous scene Versace rejects an autograph request from tourists outside his house, but once he’s gunned down the tourists eagerly smudge a fashion magazine page in the murdered designer’s blood. The show is shot with the look of a fashion magazine, with vivid colors and stylish wide shots capturing Miami Beach’s glistening ocean and decadent homes of the rich. The opening shots of the premiere show Versace having breakfast by a giant Medusa head (the logo of his company) on his tiled floor in a classical Roman design. The cinematography emphasizes the tone of bodies, as this is a circle where you should look a certain way to fit in. But the show is engrossing in how it then shatters the façade with Cunanan’s sudden thirst for murderous revenge. All the money in the world can’t contain human nature’s most violent jealousies.

Fans of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” will be wondering if season two of “American Crime Story” is just as good. This new season has such a different tone that comparisons might be unfair. Although the first season’s more linear structure made for a smoother narrative, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is taking a big risk with its inter-timeline structure, and it will be interesting to see how it can hold it together for an entire season. But for now this is entertaining television, full of characters that are anything but boring and enough lurid details to keep us watching with guilty pleasure.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” premieres Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. ET and airs Wednesdays on FX.