‘American Crime Story’ hits sophomore slump with ‘Versace’ (review)

January 13, 2018 GMT

‘American Crime Story’ hits sophomore slump with ‘Versace’ (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The evidence so impressively stacked up in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was overwhelming. The conclusion was as obvious as it was inescapable. FX’s first “American Crime Story” season would be one incredibly tough act to follow.

Imagine trying to come up with a sophomore season as mesmerizing and grandly realized as the Emmy-winning “People v. O.J. Simpson.” Executive producer Ryan Murphy and his team apparently couldn’t imagine it, and so we get “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the terribly uneven second “American Crime Story,” premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17.

Remember how the first season of HBO’s “True Detective” had critics and viewers reaching for the superlatives? We couldn’t wait for the second season. Here was a show destined to take crime-time storytelling to new heights.

Then, of course, we saw the second season of “True Detective” and realized, in truth, we could have waited. The drop-off between the first and second season of “American Crime Story” is nowhere near as precipitous, but it is dramatic.

Certainly the case is quickly made that “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” pales in comparison with its acclaimed predecessor. Although the nine-part true-crime drama has much to recommend it, starting with the superb work of Darren Criss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan, it lacks any clear sense of what it’s trying to say about the characters and the American landscape they populate.

If it seems like it has been a long wait since “The People v. O.J. Simpson” aired in 2016, keep in mind that “Versace” wasn’t supposed to be the second season of “American Crime Story.” That was going to focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, relying heavily on Sheri Fink’s book “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” That now will be the third season.

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” doesn’t seem rushed so much as fuzzy and uncertain. In fact, give Murphy credit for attempting something completely different in tone, mood, style, look and pace. But where “O.J.” was sharply focused and magnificently detailed, “Versace” is ponderous and plodding.

The visual flourishes and grand-opera touches are impressive, yet they often seem overplayed and self-conscious, as if trying to make up for the lack of substance. And there is a decided lack of substance. Indeed, while “O.J.” was packed with layers upon layers of expertly arranged information, “Versace” is a story that could have been told in about half the time.

The second season opens in Miami Beach on July 15, 1997, with a seven-minute sequence almost completely devoid of dialogue. Yes, Murphy begins with the murder of international fashion icon Versace (Edgar Ramirez) on the steps of his opulent South Beach residence.

We see Versace getting out of bed, putting on a robe and making his way to a balcony, where he looks for all the world like an emperor surveying his kingdom. We see Cunanan sitting on the beach, checking on the .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol in his knapsack. They are a study in contrasts, and they remain so for the rest of the episodes, which charts the paths to this collision course in reverse.

In this way, we see how the serial killer arrived at the steps of Versace’s home. They are mirror images, in a dark and distorted kind of way, as if Cunanan is a fun-house mirror reflection of Versace.

It’s an intriguing idea poorly executed. “Versace” makes an ambitious attempt to examine, like “O.J.,” the crosscurrents of American culture, but never develops a strong and cohesive overall vision.

There’s nothing wrong with the cast, which also includes Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, Dascha Polanco, Max Greenfield, Cody Fern, Judith Light and Mike Farrell. And there are many incredibly suspenseful and deeply fascinating stretches. The problem is that fascination is wrapped around frustration in this second “American Crime Story,” which is wearisomely lighter on details and slower of pace.

Based on the book “Vulgar Favors” by Maureen Orth, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” demands great patience and indulgence on the part of viewers. Criss provides the most compelling reason to stick with these episodes, and even this stunning performance might not be enough to keep you following a dark trail that takes so many wrong turns.


The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”

What: A true-crime drama examining serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s 1997 murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace.

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17.

Where: FX