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TV Review: American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace


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After the brilliant first season of American Crime Story, exploring the murder trial of OJ Simpson, I did wonder whether the team behind the hit show would be able to reach those heights again. However, the second instalment, Versace, if at times a little confusing, was an incredible journey into the psyche of a disturbed serial killer.

To start with, the name of this instalment of American Crime Story is a little misleading. The show spends very little time on the assassination of the titular character, and the Versace family in general, instead favouring the exploration of the man behind the murder of Versace: Andrew Cunanan. This has led to criticism of the show from some, but I understand why the show took this tack - when it comes to serial killers, we tend to be more intrigued by the killers themselves than their victims, even if one of those victims is themselves famous.

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Darren Criss is outstanding in his portrayal of Versace's killer Andrew Cunanan. In a role that is the complete antithesis of his role as charming, openly gay high schooler Blaine Anderson on Glee, Criss shines as he portrays the closeted Cunanan as a charming, manipulative and deeply disturbed killer, whilst also delving into the crushing loneliness beneath. It's an incredible and nuanced performance which somehow has you both feeling incredibly uneasy and disturbed and yet also feeling pity for Cunanan at the same time.

The back and forth of the timeline does feel incredibly confusing at times. It works for the overall narrative, building up a complex picture of Cunanan as a killer and how he came to be, but it does get frustrating at times. I often found myself losing where I was in the story because it wasn't chronological, leading to moments of "wait wasn't that person dead last episode?" The ultimate payoff is good and I don't think the story would have been as compelling had it been told in a traditional narrative structure, but it does mean you have to deal with some frustration as the narrative goes backwards and forwards in time.

The cinematography of the series cannot be overstated: the visuals are over the top and stunning and it is hard not to be dragged in to the lavish world of 1990's Miami and juxtaposing this lavish background against the sheer horror of Cunanan's actions, is very, very effective. Versace also boasts an impressive soundtrack, with each music choice perfectly fitted to the scene it accompanies.

By not solely devoting the series to Cunanan's most famous victim, as the title of the series mistakenly suggests, we as viewers get to see and explore the lesser known victims of Cunanan's murder spree, with earnest and endearing performances from both newcomer Cody Fern (who plays Cunanan's lover and second victim, David Madson) and Finn Wittrock (who plays Jeffrey Traill, the first victim of Cunanan's murder spree). It can be all too easy to forget in the glitz and glamour of the world of Versace, that most of Cunanan's victims were ordinary, closeted gay men, who were it not for the notoriety of Cunanan's last victim, would likely have remained completely unknown. For me, the stories of Lee Miglin, David Madson and Jeffrey Traill, were just as, if not more compelling than Versace's.

The Versace family take somewhat of a lesser role in the series, despite Versace's name being featured in the title, with neither Donatella nor Gianni appearing in every episode. Whilst both Edgar Ramirez (Gianni Versace) and Penelope Cruz (Donatella) put in great performances, particularly Cruz (Ricky Martin is also surprisingly good as Versace's lover Antonio D'Amico), the Versace side of the storyline was always the less compelling one for me. I actually preferred watching the stories of Cunanan's less famous victims playing out and seeing how they were unfortunate enough to get caught up in his destructive downward spiral. 

The exploration of homophobia in the 90's can seem a little heavy-handed at times, especially in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" episode, but there's no doubt that the show achieves what it sets out to here, showing how homophobia and 90's society allowed Cunanan to get away with as many murders as he did.

The Versace family has come out against the series calling it "a work of fiction" and at times, it does seem as if the series is filling in the blanks a little, but it never claims to be a completely accurate telling of Cunanan's murder spree - it is based of Maureen Orth's non-fiction book Vulgar Favors, but the show makes it clear that certain scenes and conversations are imagined or expanded on for dramatic effect. This is partly where the show falls down a little. As addicting as the insight into the mind of a killer is, there's perhaps not enough information to make the nine hours of TV as tightly plotted as they could be.

Overall, Versace is a dark and disturbing look into Andrew Cunanan and the society that created a serial killer, and whilst the back and forth storytelling is at times confusing and the lack of information about the murders means that show lags in places, Darren Criss' career-defining performance, a stellar supporting cast and a combination of stunning visuals and audio make for disturbing, yet ultimately compelling viewing.

The last four episodes of American Crime Story: Versace are available for catch up on iPlayer now.


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