Season one of FX’s “American Crime Story” capitalized on last year’s O.J. craze with a gripping, well-acted depiction of one of the most significant events in American cultural history. Although the assassination of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace is not quite as ingrained in the country’s mind as the Simpson saga, “American Crime Story” tells its story in an ornate, operatic and elegant way, much like the man himself.
The story starts with the titular murder, as Andrew Cunanan (University alum Darren Criss, “Glee”) shoots Versace (Édgar Ramirez, “Zero Dark Thirty”) in front of his Miami mansion. Through a series of flashbacks interlaced with the subsequent FBI investigation, the show pieces together the life of the enigmatic, troubled Cunanan and what led him to commit a crime of passion.
While the stories themselves are intriguing, much like season one, the acting breathes life into characters who have been endlessly analyzed, making the show less of a criminal investigation and more of a deep, powerful drama. Criss’s portrayal of Cunanan paints the picture of a man who lacks any sort of human empathy yet seems to also have a complex set of emotions bubbling at the surface. He is an enthusiastic and effective liar, able to draw the audience into the web of fiction he creates in his mind. Ramirez, on the other hand, portrays Versace as an intensely charismatic man with a true zeal for life, as well as the courage to live as openly gay during a much less progressive time. Even Ricky Martin’s portrayal of Versace’s boyfriend Antonio D’Amico is believable and effective, albeit a one note performance since he displays the same anguished expression every time he appears onscreen. Versace’s sister and eventual ruler of the Versace empire Donatella (Penelope Cruz, “Murder on the Orient Express”), arrives towards the end of the first episode, stylishly clad in black and more ruthlessly pragmatic than her romantic brother.
The opening scene is the episode’s most memorable, with stunning shots of Miami and Versace’s grand, opulent mansion and little dialogue. Strings play in the background, growing more and more tense as Cunanan prepares himself for the deed. Everything, from the details of the mansion to Versace’s dead body, is presented as channeling beauty — ranging from traditional to morbid. Yet one can’t help feeling that unlike season one, the show is choosing to sacrifice substance for style. While some scenes such as Cunanan and Versace’s conversation after an opera viewing are strong, the dialogue at several points feels stilted and cliché, failing to convey the true emotions the characters are feeling. Because of this, quite a few of Criss’s strongest moments come from entirely non-verbal actions, whether it is swimming fully clothed into the sea to let out a primordial scream or painfully trying to imitate human emotion.
The show also does a solid job of contrasting Versace’s unique romanticism and how his vision interacts with the capitalistic nature of the society he lives in. In one scene, he explains that he makes his clothes to make his subjects happy and how every dress he makes follows the first he made for his sister.
“American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is visually gorgeous and shaping up to be an intriguing character study. Hopefully, the series manages to truly analyze the crime and its impact on society, rather than exploit a set of dramatic clichés.