"The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story" has been hotly anticipated ever since its announcement. Mired in controversy from the very start, the Versace family denounced the Ryan Murphy-helmed FX show, despite Donatella's affection for leading lady Penelope Cruz. Dropping earlier this week, the new program has some critics disappointed, while others eagerly await more.
The series opens in Miami Beach, Florida in 1995. A swelling orchestra and painted clouds in garish colors gives way to a room lit in neon undertones, where we are introduced to our main character: the eponymous Gianni. In designer boxers and a plush robe, he takes to a balcony where he watches a boy on a beach. That boy is Andrew Cunanan, who will go on to kill Gianni.
Cunanan ruffles through his bag to find a book about Vogue magazine and a gun. Lesions on his leg hint at a disease festering in his body (already Murphy's series is not shying away from discussing AIDS). He walks into the water and screams. Gianni dines on fresh fruit.
While Gianni denies a couple an autograph, Cunanan vomits into a toilet, noting graffiti scrawled in the toilet stall denigrates queers. After running some banal errands, Versace returns home, where he is shot to death by Cunanan.
In 1990, Cunanan is shown partying at a gay club (Murphy's signature display of excess continues here), where a friend gets him into a VIP section. He weasels his way into a conversation with a slightly younger Versace. Cunanan is shown lying about the encounter later, over-exaggerating his social prowess and similarly denigrating queer people.
In another passing conversation, Criss' character is shown to be somewhat of a pathological liar with a handful of (sexual) traumas in his past. Darren Criss' ability to accurately and sensitively play a gay man will surely be the topic of considerable debate as the series progresses, but already his purposefully effeminate mannerisms are a bit, well, questionable, to say the least. (He's trying, that's for sure.)
Cunanan somehow manages a date with Versace at an opera the designer created costumes for. Cunanan tells a tall tale about his origin — obviously suspect at this point. Clearly he's attempting to seduce Versace.
Back to 1995, Versace's body lies on the steps of his palace. A butler or servant of Versace's goes after Cunanan, but he escapes after threatening the employee with a gun. Ambulances rush to the mansion while Cunanan attempts to calm himself after the killing.
Paparazzi and camera crews rush to cover the killing while police pursue Cunanan. Attempts are made to revive Versace, but to no avail.
Teasers leading up to "ACS" showed characters bathed in tawdry neons, making many wonder what the series was aiming for in its tone. At this point, it's clear Murphy is taking a step back from the campy, over-the-top vibe of "American Horror Story." He's trying to take this story seriously, and he perhaps imagines the events themselves as a kind of lavish opera, although tacky flourishes betray those intentions (perhaps intentional, perhaps accidental).
The death of Versace has attracted some eccentric people, including a tourist who sneaks into the crime scene to drench a Versace ad in the creator's blood, and an aspiring model who vamps in the background of news reports on the murder. Cunanan is shown mimicking the shocked reactions of those learning the news. It's not exactly subtle (Murphy has no ability to do anything with subtlety), but the shot of Criss covering his mouth with his hand shortly after seeing a nearby woman doing the same shows Cunanan's attempts at parroting normal human behavior.
Donatella (Cruz) arrives in Miami while police interrogate Versace's partner, Antonio D'Amico (Martin), with some sadistic cruelty, accusing him of pimping boys and men for Versace's pleasure. Martin admits to bringing men home for sexual encounters, but police mistake the complexities of gay relationships as some kind of perverse or evil behavior. D'Amico has no ability to explain his love for Versace to these people; they have no desire to understand. Donatella forbids Martin from speaking to anyone else on the matter.
Martin is already the standout actor in the show. Covered in blood and crying for his lover, he's clearly attempting to prove his chops — and definitely succeeding. Cruz and Criss are doing their best, but they can't seem to shake the inherent campiness of their characters. Cruz in particular is trying to treat Donatella with decency, but her commitment to seriousness makes her depiction feel wooden. It feels like she fears making Donatella too silly, and the character's depth suffers as a result.
Murphy here is clearly attempting to use Versace's murder to discuss a handful of LGBTQ+ social issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to the lack of acceptance of non-traditonal queer relationships. Whether he'll be able to tackle these subjects with clarity or nuance remains to be seen.