TV Review: “The Assassination Of Gianni Versace” is Blood and Mayhem, Coated in Gold and Glitter.

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Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. | Courtesy of Ray Mickshaw/FX.

From its first moments, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace proudly declares what kind of a show that is going to be: a silent storm of destruction, a captivating journey of demise and a battlefield of identity and fear, in all honesty, without any second guesses about its purpose of existence on the land of television in 2018. After a title card quickly reads the date “July 15, 1997” and gives the location information of Miami Beach, Florida, the camera starts to follow two very opposite lives two very different men, as a familiar tune of classical music; Adagio in G Minor, as arranged by show composer Mac Quayle; plays on the background, creating a sense of connection between their stories — but even more importantly an atmosphere of tragedy. One of them is Gianni Versace, the renowned creative director of that world famous brand; and the other is Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who has killed at least five people during a three-month period in mid-1997. Versace clothes himself in expensive silk and salutes his many servants, while Cunanan sits by the beach, a gun in his bag. The former’s daily routine of taking medicine overlaps with the latter’s screams into the ocean, and Gianni buys magazines while Andrew pukes into a public toilet, his eyes gazing on a single sentence written on the bathroom stall. Their geographical closeness plays into this too, as the viewers are met with how much can change in just minutes apart of each other.

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Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace, in one of the promotional photos for the series. | Courtesy of FX.

At the end, an undeniable turn-point of history is played out. Andrew Cunanan kills Gianni Versace with a single bullet shot, on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, while he is returning from his morning walk on Ocean Drive. Then, the screen goes black and we go seven years back, to 1990, to Cunanan telling his friends about his first meeting with the Italian designer.

For those who haven’t watched the first season of the anthology series, it must be said that this is the first unexpected move from Ryan Murphy when it comes to establishing the timeline on his second outing under the American Crime Story title. While his strategy for O. J. was a much simpler one, a linear approach to storytelling, starting from the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; here, it seems that his intention to mix present and the past, finding puzzle pieces from various corners of the journey. When you think about it, it is a very clever and understandable technique, indeed, as the mystery factors of two crimes are built on very different bases.

During the trial of American football player, the question was, and still is; at least if you ask the public; whether or not he had carried out the crime, — but that is not the case with The Assassination Of Gianni Versace. There is no suspicion upon Cunanan’s involvement with the murder, no trial to be examined, to gloves to be fitted. His story ends so near to his last victim, just eight days later, when he commits suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot to the right temple in the upstairs bedroom of a Miami houseboat from a “Taurus PT100 semi-automatic pistol in .40 S&W caliber”, the same gun he had used in killing three of his victims: David Madson, William Reese and of course, Gianni Versace. So, as expected, there is not an “if” to be surveyed in the second season of the series, but rather a “why”: why did Cunanan killed Versace? Did they know each other? How did they know each other?

In an effort to create a semi-realistic setting for the season, veteran producer and his group of writers use Maureen Orth’s 1999 published “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History” as a starting point to build their main structure, but of course, as with every other fictional take on historical figures, there are some liberties taken. Small details are changed from the truth, and speculations are used to fill the blanks: here, Cunanan and Versace first meet in a San Francisco nightclub named Colossus, where the former and his friend Eli Gould come across the fashion mastermind when they enter the VIP section. As Orth herself has explained multiple times, this is just one of the many first meetings between the two tragic figures, and each story is more interesting than the other; but it is clear that this one seems to be a better fit to the show, especially when one thinks about the over-arching theme of self-identification and homophobia roaming through the episode. The stories of these men are intervined not just because how one is the other’s prey, but because of the fact that they stand on various levels of the same identity spectrum; put into boxes of class, race, and of course, sexuality. Their similarities are clouded by their differences, in life and in character, and they mirror each other.

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Ricky Martin and Édgar Ramírez in their respective roles of Antonio D’Amico and Gianni Versace. | Courtesy of FX.

During that first meeting, Cunanan tells that his mother is from Italy, but has never gone back to her home country. Back in the kitchen of his friends, Andrew talks to them about how Gianni Versace himself had made the move in other the meet him. He acts as straight as, you know, something; contrasting the lustful looks he had shared with other men mere seconds ago. There are multiple stories to tell in this one book, and the witnesses are left with no clear answer as to which one is the real. It is undeniable that Cunanan is a serial liar, a con-man whose most spectacular advantage is how qucikly he becomes involved in his own lies. When they meet for a second time in an opera, towhich Versace is designing costumes for, he talks about his father’s pineapple plantations to the older guy — and how he wants to write a book about his crazy family. Gianni caresses his face. The sequence is romantic and dream-like, a dangerously striking reflective effect to the cold night of the present time.

During a completely different scene in UC Berkeley, Andrew tells to a guy who seems very into him that his lies only matter if people know that they are lies: it doesn’t matter if someone thinks that he is half-Jewish, or that Gianni Versace thinks that they are so alike. “You tell gay people you’re gay, and straight people you’re straight,” the guy murmurs just before that, holding his hand as Cunanan looks around them nervously, making sure that nobody is watching. “Every time I feel like I’m getting close to you, you say you’re someone else.” Those very words summarize the role of Cunanan both in the story and his own life, he is an empthy shall, a ghost one, if you would; filling his insides with the stories he hopes to be heroes of.

It is a not a secret, though, that the series is interested in exploring the gay culture and the involvement of homophobia in the series of killings done by Andrew Cunanan, on the contrary, the tagline for it clearly reads that silence killed more than an icon. Not just silence, too, but also ignorance. There are flyers of Andrew in a detective’s car, waiting to be handed out, and it is later learned that the police department “forgot” the investigate a clue about Cunanan; which had information about his where-abouts nearly a week before the murder of Versace. There is a lot more to be explored, of course, but the intention is clear.

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Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace, in one of the promotional photos for the series. | Courtesy of FX.

For the most part, it is the power of the actors that push The Assasination to the top, especially when two players are left alone. Édgar Ramírez is subtle in his mimics and powerful in his words as the titular character with an undeniable resemblence of facial structure to his real life counterpart. Penelope Cruz shoulders the sense of grief and duty gracefully in Donatella’s shoes from the moment she walks into the scene, and Ricky Martin puts on an unexpected show for the viewers as Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s secret lover. Their importance to the story become apparent in smaller scenes, in which one of them, for example, D’Amico is being interviewed by detective Scrimshaw (Will Chase) who is seemingly not able to grasp what kind of partnership may there be between him and Versace. Just as Donatella puts it, “the victim is judged” too, because of his lifestyle and his orientation, and it is clear as the morning sky that The Assasination wants to look at something deeper than just the killing in hand.

But above them all, rises Darren Criss, looking so same yet so different from his days of working in Glee as Blaine Anderson. He is heart-breakingly convincing in his portrayal of a serial killer who the world knows so little about, and captivatingly thrilling in his inception of lies and manipulation. Murphy uses the charisma and the precision Criss holds to build a strong bridge between the concept and the story, too, and thank God it works, avoiding what coul have been a true disaster. Cunanan’s lust for finer things in life; designer clothes and expensive hotel rooms, champagne and silk; put him in a great position as an examination field into the larger perspective of gay culture of the 1990s. It is clear how what he wants to be, and it is clear why he thinks he can’t be those things; so he builds layers and layers into his identity until there isn’t a core one, just different masks for different social cliques and demographics. In one of the final moments of the episode, his hand falls over his mouth as he watches the news about Versace’s murder, copying the reaction of the woman standing in front of him; but you see from the movements of his cheeks that he is smiling behind the cover. There’s a mania surrounding him, a dark aura, an impossible puzzle.

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Promotional artwork for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Horror Story”. | Courtesy of Fx.

On a different note, another powerful side of The Assassination Of Gianni Versace is how magnificent it looks. The colours are vibrant, the sets are grand; especially Gianni’s mansion. Donatella’s entrance, as she walks down from a private plane into a black limousine is one for the ages. Red shadows linger in Colossus, and a production light hits Cunanan directly in his face after the opera. Visually, the show tells a story in itself, told by colours and angles, revealing secrets and working hand in hand with the script of Tom Rob Smith (London Spy). In one of the quiter and earlier scenes of the episode, Cunanan stands near the bed of his friends, and he holds his penis on top of his underwear. He looks dangerous even without a gun in his hand. Later, he quickly steals magnifying binoculars when walking among other opera watchers, his hand movement quick: it is an interesting contrast between the sweaty delusion of his later-self and his much more collected, cool version of back then.

It is hard to guess where The Assassination is going to, even though there is no questions about the end point. But again, the question here isn’t what, it is a why; and somewhere in there, there is bigger point waiting to be made, about truth and identity. Both journey — into the past and into the future — have intriguing dilemmas and story points here; and in the centre, two men, looking at each other. It seems like this is going to be an enjoyable ride, either way, and one that I can faithfully recommend that you take if you are captivated by mind games and interpersonal drama as much as I am. Or, maybe you just look looking at pretty people acting in expensive clothes and watching as they intimidatingly threaten and seduce each other, and you already know that is the show that you need in your life.

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