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

Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez take a backseat to Darren Criss in a juicy if uneven saga.

Ryan Murphy follows up his O.J. Simpson season with a solid, though less effective, 'American Crime Story' portrait of Gianni Versace's killer.

The scope of the "trial of the century" — its racial and economic implications and the fact that it featured one of the country's most famous people and played out on national television — made the O.J. Simpson saga a logical choice as the backdrop for Ryan Murphy's first American Crime Story season.

The anthology's second installment, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, has to work a little harder to make what is certainly a portrait of the bedsore-ridden underbelly of the American Dream feel like a match. Adapted from Maureen Orth's Vulgar Favors by London Spy creator Tom Rob Smith, Assassination of Gianni Versace juggles three storylines and an innovative crimes-in-reverse structure in a way that yields a disturbing character study and an assortment of strong performances. Still, through eight of the nine episodes, it isn't quite as convincing or thematically unified as The People v. O. J. Simpson.

Assassination of Gianni Versace begins in Miami in July 1997 with a contrast. Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) lives in a beachfront villa oozing opulence from its palatial bathrooms to its gaping closets to the man servants practically lining the hallways and the poolside terraces. Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) reads books about this world, but in reality he's falling apart physically and mentally. Before the Murphy-directed premiere is 10 minutes old, he has sought both symbolic rebirth in the ocean and notoriety by approaching Versace at his front gate and shooting him dead.

In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, the pilot follows Cunanan as he flees the authorities, Versace's longtime partner Antonio (Ricky Martin) as he grieves and Versace's sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz) as she arrives and tries to hold the empire together. Subsequent episodes work backward, somewhat Memento-style, following Cunanan back through each step of his multi-state killing spree, sometimes paralleling his journey with key steps in Gianni's career and the building of his own brand and his own outsider identity.

A third thread, one insufficiently developed or explored, involves the failure of local, state and federal law enforcement to stop Cunanan, a debacle the series wants to connect to institutional homophobia, with limited success. This is the part of the story that feels most like the process-oriented People v. O.J. Simpson and the part that most viewers probably won't even notice. The series does well with "What a difference 20 years makes" glimpses at how being gay, and openly gay, impacted the way people lived their lives in 1997. But there's a leap to how that led to different treatment under the law that I believe completely in theory, but not at all in how it's executed here. It's also going to be tough to make audiences invest in procedural storylines led by Will Chase, Dascha Polanco and Jay Ferguson when there are movie stars playing famous people nearby.

Battling and largely overcoming a series of increasingly youthful hairpieces, Ramirez nails Versace's soft-spoken genius and he has good chemistry with a surprisingly sturdy, emotional Martin. My wariness that Cruz was perhaps overdoing Dontella's accent and mumble lasted until I watched one YouTube clip and suddenly I was astounded by how well she's evoking the real woman's transfixing oddness. The thing to know about these big-name characters and performances is that they're decidedly supporting roles. Multiple episodes include either no Versace or a couple brief flashbacks, but if you're FX you can't push Assassination of Gianni Versace by boasting that Aussie actor Cody Fern, solidly playing Cunanan victim David Madson, has more dialogue than Ramirez or that M*A*S*H veteran Mike Farrell, as Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, is nearly as important as Cruz.

Assassination of Gianni Versace is mostly Cunanan's story and that's unsettling, because the archetype of the duplicitous, code-switching gay killer has long been one of Hollywood's most negative depictions — and Smith's reverse chronological structure means that Cunanan is introduced as a murderer before the series gradually backtracks into matters of motivation, and we generally only get to know his victims as humans in the episodes after we saw them become corpses. It's a challenge of dramatic irony, seeing if you can make viewers find a path to empathizing with a man previously depicted as a remorseless killer or to challenge us to feel grief for dispatched strangers and then tell us why their death was a loss. It mirrors coverage of the story, in which the celebrity casualty at the end of the spree turned Cunanan's other victims, and his own story, into footnotes beneath the Versace headline.

While the Simpson season had the advantage of a story with all of the built-in beats of a twisty trial and character details wrought from countless firsthand accounts, Smith has both less plot and fewer resources to work with. The structure is a reasonably effective cover for the linear variety, inserting practical mysteries — How did he meet that person? Where did he get that car? — and turning characters into riddles to be solved. With only an outsider's perspective on Cunanan, though, the arc he chooses is both plausible and very conventional. Expectations and sense-of-self warped by a disturbing childhood — Jon Jon Briones is dynamite as Cunanan's father in a late episode — Andrew bucks his limited upward mobility through reinvention and through the construction of an American Dream facade until the lies and manipulation become self-deception. Criss plays it to the hilt, leaving constant questions as to how much control Andrew even has, but his whole arc has the feel of familiar fiction and not granular fact. Especially in the middle hours, in which Andrew is still only part-analyzed and the Versace story is an afterthought, it feels like you're watching a padded adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley and a thin reading of a real person.

Even when the portrait of Andrew isn't enlightening or you aren't sure you want this guy justified at all, Assassination of Gianni Versace offers frequent pleasures. Production designer Judy Becker relishes the gold-leafed opulence of Versace's world, but she's just as enamored with the lurid stucco of a Miami flophouse or the cold sterility of a Minneapolis loft. And although Murphy isn't on quite the same "Everybody's a star" casting power trip as he was on O.J., he still gets great drop-in work from a career-redefining Farrell, the reliably superb Judith Light and, perhaps best of all, Max Greenfield, almost unrecognizably twitchy and emaciated as the Ratso Rizzo to Cunanan's Joe Buck in the season's second episode.

Although I had my doubts when I started watching, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story shows why Murphy and company thought this was a story worth telling in this anthology. The tragic meeting of Gianni Versace, embodiment of the American Dream, and Andrew Cunanan, protean warper of the American Dream, holds up thematically, if not always in the telling of the tale.

Cast: Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin
Writer: Tom Rob Smith
Premieres: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)