When American Crime Story first aired in 2016, everyone was in awe. I myself wrote a glowing review of the first season. It had everything: fantastic performances, astounding attention to detail, drama, irony and a fascinating look at a hugely impactful series of events. I vaguely remember hearing that there would be a season two and what the subject matter would be. Unlike the OJ trial, the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace is not something I knew much about. The second season also boasts fewer big names than the first. At face value, I wouldn’t expect it to live up to its predecessor.
With season two over, I have to say, I think it’s equal or very near equal to the first. Not only that, but I think this is one of the more underrated TV offerings in recent years. The actors are, again, amazing. Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Finn Wittrock and many more bring something unique to the show. Darren Criss really makes a believably loathable serial killer. This guy’s a monster. He’s creepy, manipulative, and a pathological liar with no respect or compassion for anyone. I’ve never seen Edgar Ramirez in anything before, but he brings his A-game here. He looks just like Versace, and disappears into the role of the fashion designer who just loves life. Cruz doesn’t much resemble Donatella Versace, but she absolutely sinks into the role. You really forget you’re watching an actress.
This season also has amazing sets, costumes and music. Every aspect of the ambiance just works to make it feel like you’re there. Modesto’s home in Manila feels like a different world from the Cunanan family’s suburban house, which feels planets away from Versace’s beachside mansion. The bars, schools, apartments, and hotels all feel authentic. Watching this show it’s very easy to forget this is all staged for entertainment.
One of my favorite episodes was “Creator/Destroyer.” We get to see some of Versace’s background in 1950’s Italy, and a lot of Andrew Cunanan’s life in California. Versace is bullied in school and discouraged by his teacher, but his mother supports him and teaches him to make dresses. Meanwhile Cunanan’s mother is loving but a little crazy and his father is abusive, unstable, chooses between his children, steals from work and lies about everything.
In this episode Gianni’s mother tells him he can choose to do anything, but it won’t be easy and he’ll never succeed without hard work. Meanwhile, Modesto tells Andrew that success is about believing you’re special, and that if you think you’re important, you will be. Modesto also physically and emotionally abuses his wife and treats his other kids like dirt. It’s easy to imagine how Versace became rich and successful while Andrew grew to resent people like him, believing himself to be entitled to a certain lifestyle. That’s another great thing about this show; it doesn’t make excuses for Cunanan and goes out of its way to show what a psychopath he is, while also offering some context on how he got this way.
This season also has something to say about gay culture and the AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s. More than once they imply or even verbally state that nobody cared about Cunanan’s victims until he killed someone famous because they were “just queers.” Nobody cared when they died of AIDs, nobody wanted to help, so why would anyone care when they were being murdered? Even when questioned about Andrew’s innocence in an interview, Modesto just keeps saying Andrew is straight, not gay, that he was manipulated by older men. Donatella doesn’t accept Antonio as Gianni’s partner, and while she blames their wild lifestyle, one can’t help but wonder if she would feel differently if her brother was married to a woman
One aspect of this series that’s interesting is, many of the episodes focus on one specific victim. “A Random Killing” shows us some of real estate developer-philanthropist Lee Miglin’s life and the time leading up to his murder. “House by the Lake” displays Andrew’s jealousy at his friend David showing interest in Jeff, which inevitably spells doom for both men. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is another thought provoking episode that tells us more about Jeff’s career in the Navy and we also get to see Gianni’s public coming out.
This episode is another like “Creator/Destroyer” that really fascinated me with its parallels. We see Gianni, simply happy to be alive, coming out to the world and introducing Antonio to them. For him this is a triumph. Meanwhile, Jeff is interviewed in shadow, disgraced and ashamed. Because Versace is famous and rich, he can say and do what he wants, Jeff risks being dishonorably discharged or beaten to death by even speaking out. Cunanan is the killer and the show’s villain, but the look at society and stereotypes that persist even today is just as interesting and meaningful. These men were killed by Cunanan, and he ruined their family’s lives, but they were already being crushed by the need to lie and hide their true nature.
While the show dives into the political issues of the time, it’s never over-bearing. You don’t have to be like the characters or even agree with them to sympathize in this situation. Even David’s father wasn’t happy about his son’s lifestyle, but could see that he was a good man who didn’t deserve this. The victims we see are all decent people who try to live honorably, but the fact that they have success, or the attention of someone he likes, is enough to drive Cunanan to murder.
It’s also intriguing to me that this show seems to be in the shadow of its bigger brother, American Horror Story. Another grand FX anthology series from producer/director Ryan Murphy, AHS also boasts impressive ensemble casts but it lacks what makes American Crime Story stand out: great dialogue, nuance and fascinating characters. AHS has specks of these throughout each season, but is rarely able to reach such heights thanks to shock value and characters who tend to be weird but not interesting. ACS season one was a smash hit, but for whatever reason (likely the genre and star-studded cast) AHS seems to have a bigger following.
American Crime Story seems to be an unstoppable force of brilliant and subtle writing, spot-on casting and admirable re-creation of recent history. The Assassination of Gianni Versace told its story with respect, attention to detail, and style. I think with time it will be looked at as equal to OJ. This show has everything it takes to make a great TV drama, and I hope this team keeps giving us great stories and characters.