THE ASSASINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY Wednesdays, 10 p.m., FX. Premieres January 17.
Despite its title, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not really about Gianni Versace. The second installment in executive producer Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series (after 2016’s highly popular and acclaimed The People v. O.J. Simpson), Assassination is really the story of Andrew Cunanan (Glee’s Darren Criss), a serial killer who murdered four other people before making Versace (Édgar Ramirez) his final victim in July 1997. The first episode begins with Versace’s murder, and the rest of the season mostly works backward, tracking Cunanan as he targets his previous victims, while spending significantly less time on Versace’s professional and personal life.
The show’s big-name stars are Penélope Cruz as Versace’s sister Donatella and Ricky Martin as his longtime partner Antonio D’Amico, but Criss dominates every episode, and the entire middle stretch of the season features virtually no appearances from Versace or his associates. Even when those characters do appear, the writers struggle to connect storylines about Versace’s business and relationships with Cunanan’s days as a hustler preying on older, wealthy gay men. The backtracking narrative structure also finds the episodes frequently going in circles, as characters will describe a situation in detail that then plays out in exactly the same detail an episode later.
A manipulative sociopath and compulsive liar, Cunanan is a tough protagonist to invest in for nine episodes, and while Criss makes him suitably unsettling, the show too often skews more toward the sleazy excesses of a ’90s erotic thriller than the methodical refinement of something like The Talented Mr. Ripley. The previous season used the Simpson case to explore issues of race in America, albeit in a loud, hectoring manner, and Murphy and his collaborators try to tie Assassination’s disparate plot threads together by focusing on the difficulties of gay life in the ’90s. But the connections are thin, and some of the detours stray too far from what makes the story worth telling. The Simpson story is a sprawling saga that encompasses far more than its central crime; Assassination never manages to turn Versace’s murder into the same kind of miniseries-worthy epic.