Quite fittingly, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” begins with a sequence that feels timeless. The opening scenes of the first episode, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue,” are nearly devoid of dialogue, scored instead with a lush, operatic adagio that is reminiscent of an opulent, bygone age. The characters are introduced in ways that feel particularly timeless too: Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez), lord of his domain, wakes up in his sumptuous Miami Beach mansion — an Italian, baroque confection of luxury, staffed by dozens of uniformed servants and tanned, handsome men. Versace is the type of guy who takes his morning OJ on a silver tray, before reclining by the pool for a pre-lunch constitutional. His life is an incarnation of Italianate decadence, in a way that transcends his own time — the ’90s — to borrow, effortlessly, from luxury of yore.
Outside his haven, though, another story is unfolding. Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), a skinny, bespectacled kid with a nervous, wiry energy, is pacing on the beach, opening up his backpack to look at the weapon nestled inside. He wades into the ocean and screams into the waves — his struggle pitched at a level of drama that only strings in a minor key can deliver. In between the elements of sand and sea he is reduced to his most essential state: a man on the edge of the world. And then the inevitable happens, in a scene that is shot by director Ryan Murphy like a fateful collision: Cunanan shoots Versace right outside the gates of the mansion.
The piece is the Adagio in G Minor, as arranged by show composer Mac Quayle. That the work is a well-known piece of musical chicanery seems especially fitting — a work passed off as an early-18th-century fragment that mimics baroque composition but was instead written in the middle of the 20th. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” tells the story of homophobia in the late ’90s through a modern-day lens, but like so much of creator Murphy’s work, it is also interested in erasing the boundaries between the present and the past, often by heightening the drama of both.
From the moment of Versace’s murder, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” spools not forward but backward. In a brilliant device imperfectly rendered, every new episode of the show happens chronologically before the previous, in a “Memento”-style telling that is chasing some essential truth about its shapeshifting, mysterious killer. And for a show that has Gianni Versace’s name in the title, Ramírez’s (excellent) performance takes up much less real estate than the story of Andrew Cunanan — pathological liar, spree killer and terrifyingly effective con man, who killed himself before ever fully explaining his motives to the police. The FX series is based on Maureen Orth’s book “Vulgar Favors” — which emphasizes not just Cunanan’s path to the steps of Versace’s mansion but also how his manhunt was botched by the authorities, partly because of the simple fact that Cunanan was gay. But despite the law-and-order mechanics of the first season of “American Crime Story,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” opts for a story that emphasizes a titanic struggle of gay identity, ranging between the creative warmth of Versace, the corrosive shame of Cunanan’s earlier closeted victims and Cunanan’s own desperate striving. This isn’t a narrative about the mechanics of a trial, or even much about Versace himself, despite “American Crime Story’s” successful pedigree and this season’s subtitle. Rather, it takes the absence of details about Cunanan’s motivations and interprets a character from Orth’s framework.
The bulk of interpreting that character falls to writer Tom Rob Smith and actor Darren Criss, with mixed results. It’s hard to fault Criss for what is the most committed and impressive performance of his career, or Smith for assembling the facts about Cunanan into a narrative about the particular anxieties of gay identity in the ’90s. (Criss is practically born for this role: The actor, like Cunanan, is half Filipino.) It’s more that a murderer — particularly a murderer devoid of suspense, because we see him kill his most famous victim in the first scene — is a hard subject to extract eight hours of material from. That a creepy man will continue to be creepy — or that a scary man will continue to be scary — has a chilling effect for an audience investing in story. By the second time that Cunanan kills — which is, chronologically, the fourth time he kills — his presence in the home of Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) has the heightened-strings suspense of a horror flick, complete with some of that genre’s fear-inducing editing. Criss may be doing the very best job he is capable of, but it’s hard to take the narrative of a budding murderer as anything more than suspense played for shock value when his sudden presence in a doorway, accompanied by sliding chords, has all the nuance of a jump scare.
More saliently, the heavy-handedness slows down the story — or belies the fact that compared to “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” has much less story to tell. Where “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was a dense, fast-paced story unpacking several characters, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is fully Cunanan’s character drama, with meaningful but limited forays into the lives of his victims. And though this second installment is pursuing different goals, the difference between the two seasons is stark. Even their relationship to the truth is different: In the first, meticulous reporting still left the interpretation of the evidence to the audience, as the consumption of the murder trial became entertainment. In the second, the crime’s nature and perpetrator are known almost immediately, and though space is given to the investigation and the sensationalism around Versace’s death, it’s all secondary to the story’s interest in Cunanan’s development. Even the Versace family — including an impeccable Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace and a strong performance from singer Ricky Martin as Versace’s boyfriend Antonio D’Amico — are sidelined to follow Cunanan’s journey. It’s difficult to swallow the bait-and-switch of the premise, if you’re not ready for it. Ramírez, Cruz and Martin are so compelling together that when the narrative veers steadily away from them — and their lush, high-fashion lives — it’s hard not to feel disappointed.
That being said, the inverted narrative presents a fascinating opportunity to examine Cunanan’s life as one that progresses into the closet, instead of emerging from it — and at its sharpest moments, the show is able to demonstrate how the spectrum of Criss, like other muses of creator Murphy, is coaxed to a career-defining performance in this role: Slippery, fabulating and mercurial, he’s a ’90s-era “Talented Mr. Ripley.” As we move backward through his life, we discover where his stories came from and how he built his worldview of resentment and entitlement. By the end of the season, our journey accelerates; we meet his broken mother, Mary Ann (Joanna Adler), and his unstable father, Modesto (Jon Jon Briones), which goes a long way toward explaining what Cunanan became. It’s worth noting that practically every performer in “American Crime Story” is stunning — whether that is Briones, Cruz, Judith Light (who plays Miglin’s widow, Marilyn) or Max Greenfield (who plays a Miami addict named Ronnie). Victims David Madson (Cody Fern) and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) have some of the most tragic material to work with, and both in very different ways express a deeply rooted ambivalence toward their own homosexuality.
In the show’s interpretation, Cunanan and Versace are each other’s doppelgängers; the eighth (and penultimate) episode, “Creator/Destroyer,” presents the show’s implications in the title. In the duality between the two characters, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” finds an externalization of the struggle of the gay identity: fabulous creation versus destructive shame. But the exploration of themes is hampered a bit by how little time Cunanan and Versace ever spend in the same space; one of their few scenes together in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” takes place during a heroin dream. And because of the need to relate information comprehensively, several scenes in this season are not, actually, in reverse chronological order — which is a little unmooring, if you’re not paying close attention, and unravels some of the significance of the structure.
On the whole, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is not quite one for the history books like the first season of “American Crime Story” — if only because, perplexingly, all of its Italian characters are played by Latinx actors. The second installment of this anthology series hopes to do for homophobia what the first season did for racism — a lofty goal that is left unrealized, in the eight episodes sent to critics. But with an array of fantastic performances and an eye to exploring the complexity of contemporary queerness, “American Crime Story” has produced another interesting history play to chew on — one with a lingering, intriguing aftertaste.