In 1997, Andrew Cunanan, a 27-year-old gay man, shot and killed the designer Gianni Versace in front of his South Beach mansion, at the end of a murder spree that had already left four men dead. Upon executing the famous Versace, a self-made, openly gay Italian who had launched a global fashion house, Cunanan became infamous, a tabloid sensation intimately connected to both glamorous and seedy circles of gay life in 1990s America. But as notorious as Cunanan became, his fame was not particularly lasting. His is not a household name, so much as a Googleable one—or at least that was the case before the arrival of FX’s fascinating, creepy The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which would more aptly be titled The Murders of Andrew Cunanan. Versace is just the name on the label.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace follows the stellar The People v. O.J. Simpson, but it does not share that series’ mood. The People v. O.J. was more fun than is strictly appropriate for a story about the brutal murder of two innocent people, but this inappropriateness—the wad of bubblegum in the blood splatter—made it just campy enough to reflect the larger-than-life, wilder-than-fiction aspect of the actual O.J. spectacle. The series was superficially coy about O.J.’s guilt, a reflection of a larger cultural consensus that the racial politics of the case are too fraught to adjudicate. The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were the catalysts, but not the focus of the series, an American saga crammed with big personalities, bad perms, bigoted cops, corrupt policing, domestic abuse, football, money, power, sex, and race.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace, by comparison, is sickening and sweaty, a grisly story that does not allow audiences to look away from the murders, because the murders are its very subject, as is the murderer. Cunanan (Darren Criss), not Versace (Édgar Ramírez), is the protagonist. Written almost entirely by Tom Robb Smith and based on Vulgar Favors, Maureen Orth’s nonfiction account of Cunanan’s crimes, The Assassination of Gianni Versace shares a producing team with The People v. O.J. Simpson, but Ryan Murphy’s touch is much more apparent: Entire episodes play out like a restrained installment of his American Horror Story. The series unfolds in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1997 in South Beach on the morning of Versace’s murder, and then making its way backward, episode by episode, through Cunanan’s life, the four other murders, and all the way to his uniquely troubled childhood, when he was taught that it doesn’t matter who you are so long as what you have appears expensive enough, a perverse version of the American Dream.
As played by Criss, who previously appeared in Murphy’s Glee, Cunanan is creepily mesmerizing, a manic, chilling pathological liar. He’s charming, smart, spoiled, volatile, and has a gaping void where a self should be. Criss’ performance is so good that it upends The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Where Cuba Gooding Jr.’s lackluster performance pushed O.J. to the margins of his own story, Criss, aided by scripts, pushes everyone else aside. Versace and his family, his boyfriend, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), and his sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz), have substantial parts only in the first two episodes, before becoming supporting characters. They do not appear in the third or fourth episodes at all, and are used sparingly in the rest of the series, too noble and decent to be as larkishly entertaining as, say, John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro.
Homophobia infects every aspect of the story, as intrinsic to it as racism and sexism were to The People v. O.J. Simpson. (Racism is also a part of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Cunanan’s father was Filipino, and Cunanan spent much of his life posing as Andrew DeSilva, passing himself off as entirely Italian.) Two decades ago, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the law of the land, AIDS deaths had recently peaked, and the closet was deeper, darker, and far more densely populated. The show takes place almost entirely in a gay world, one that is self-protectively isolated from the mainstream and uniquely vulnerable to its own members. (A vast FBI manhunt, for example, failed to find Cunanan because the bureau had so little familiarity with gay life in Miami.) Soon after Versace’s death, the police interrogate D’Amico about their sex life, convinced this “deviance” must be involved in the murder. Cunanan’s four gay victims face the bigotry of strangers, their families, their colleagues, and the armed services before they are killed by Cunanan, a gay man who is shielded from law enforcement by the very community he is victimizing.
True crime tends to do a disservice to the victims, who are not as freakishly singular as their killers, and that is the case even in Assassination, when one of the victims is a famous man whose name is in the title. Versace is held up as Cunanan’s virtuous mirror image, an agent of life and love, while Cunanan is only an agent of death and destruction. Superficially the two are similar—bright, energetic, engaging—but Versace has values, he embraced hard work and family, he survived AIDS and bigotry, he wears his heart and soul, almost literally, on a sleeve. Cunanan is only ever a hollow pretender. Ramírez is extremely warm and appealing in the role, but it is hard to play a saint. Cunanan’s other victims are more intriguing and heart-wrenching because they are permitted their flaws. There is the closeted, older Chicago businessman Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell); a former naval officer and Cunanan’s onetime best friend Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock, far better here than he has ever been in American Horror Story); and the sweet architect David Madson (Cody Fern).
In fiction, serial killers are usually presented to audiences in the context of crime solving, which gives our interest in them a wholesome cover: Law enforcement wants to know everything about psychopaths because it wants to stop them. We, sitting at home, have no such excuse, but we can hide out in these altruistic motives. But there is little to no law enforcement in Assassination, and we are left only with our fascination, which feels as sordid and voyeuristic as it does warranted. How did Andrew Cunanan become Andrew Cunanan? Insofar as it can, the series tries to answer this question, but there will always be something unsatisfactory in doing so: There is no serial killer math. Some mysterious factors are always part of the equation. As the show works its way backward through time, it inevitably feels like it is building toward an ur-trauma that set Cunanan on his monstrous path—even as we have already watched dozens of moments when he could have veered off it.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace does not justify Cunanan—he is, always, self-pitying and lazy, unwilling to choose a better course—but it does more than simply try to comprehend him. Occasionally it has compassion for him. Cunanan once shoved his mother so hard he dislocated her shoulder, and in Orth’s book the circumstances seem starkly brutal: In the show, it seems more understandable. There’s a scene, midway through the season, after Cunanan has committed his first murder, but when he is holding his shell-shocked second victim nearly hostage, when he breaks down into sobs while listening to a singer in a bar (Aimee Mann, making a cameo). Criss, is brilliant, fully self-pitying, the loneliest, saddest psycho in America. In this moment, Cunanan is not a stranger to recognizable human feelings: He wants to be loved, he wants a do-over, he wants not to have ruined his life—which is not the same as feeling remorse. The moment is an icky proffer, much like the show itself: It’s provocative, uncomfortable, morally complex. It’s good, but it doesn’t feel good.
Throughout the series, and apparently in life, Cunanan said that he just wanted to be remembered. (Further evidence that the truth is blunter than fiction, Cunanan was selected “Most likely to be remembered” in his high school year book. His quote in the same yearbook was “Après moi, le déluge.”) There is something deeply unsettling and ethically knotty that, with this deeply unsettling, ethically knotty show, he is getting more of what he wished for.