March 22, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”


If Ryan Murphy’s goal with the second season of AMERICAN CRIME STORY was to demonstrate the breadth of the show’s anthology branding, not just in subject matter but in style and structure–unlike the relative consistency of his American Horror Story, with its repertory company of writers and stars–well, mission accomplished.  Murphy handed the keys of THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE to Tom Rob Smith, previously best known for London Spy, a purported thriller that was much more interested in the sexuality of its characters than in its own plot.  Smith, who personally wrote all 9 episodes of Assassination (co-writing one of them) delivered an idiosyncratic rumination on the subject of Versace’s killer Andrew Cunanan that couldn’t have been farther from the provocative but straightforward history of the wildly successful The People Vs. OJ Simpson.

Smith adopted the kind of backwards structure mostly familiar from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and Pinter’s Betrayal (and a famous episode of Seinfeld).  After beginning with the events surrounding Cunanan’s murder of Versace, each episode went farther back into Cunanan’s past (and occasionally–seemingly randomly–into Versace’s), until the next-to-last episode reached Cunanan’s childhood.  Although Smith didn’t shy away from the grisliness of Cunanan’s murders, as the killer became younger and less dangerous with each hour, the effect was to make Cunanan something of a sympathetic figure, the victim of a terrible childhood dominated by a deceitful, demanding father (with whatever hints of molestation the FX legal department would allow), and then of the life of a gay man in the 1990s.

Or at least that seemed to be the intended effect.  The shortcoming of Smith’s approach was that Cunanan, as played by a dogged Darren Criss, wasn’t nearly interesting enough to sustain what must have been well over 10 hours of television once FX’s lax approach to running times was factored in.  In each episode, Cunanan told fantasy-driven lies about himself, and lashed out violently, and that pathology wasn’t nearly as fascinating as Smith needed it to be.  The colorful supporting cast, which included Edgar Martinez as Versace, Penelope Cruz and Ricky Martin as his sister and lover, and Judith Light as the widow of one of Cunanan’s closeted victims, were doled out in bits and pieces, with Criss at the center throughout, unable to provide shadings to Cunanan that weren’t in Smith’s scripts.

With nowhere further back to go in Cunanan’s story but to the womb, tonight’s finale, directed by Daniel Minahan, finally returned to Assassination‘s present tense, but it was mostly yet another showcase for Criss.  The episode was titled “Alone,” and much of the time we watched Cunanan watch his own manhunt on television, from actual news footage to a very on-the-nose scripted segment in which Light’s character, in an appearance on a telemarketing channel, seemed to speak directly to Cunanan’s longing to be “special” and to have the approval of his father.  By the time Cunanan stuck a gun in his mouth and blew his own head off, the season’s themes were hammered in, with guest star Max Greenfield returning to give a set-piece speech to the police about the difference between rich gay men like Versace and the suffering proletariat, and Martin’s character attempting suicide when his status as Versace’s putative husband was ignored by all at and after the funeral.

Where People vs OJ raised questions not just about race, but gender bias, popular culture, class and the criminal justice system, and did so with consistent wit and a vivid set of characters, Assassination was long-winded and monotonous.  (USA’s current Unsolved is a more worthy successor to the People vs OJ crown.)  The ratings, while not awful, reflected the difference, heavily down from the series’ first installment.

Next up (maybe):  Murphy’s already long-postponed story of Hurricane Katrina, which seems like an even less likely fit for the American Crime Story package.  After Assassination, it’s impossible to tell what that one may look like.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."