Some assassinations make household names of their gunmen. Kill a president, say, and your name will likely go down in history. Putting bullets in Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy gave John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald eternal infamy, of course. But murder one of the world’s most famous people that doesn’t happen to be in high office and the killer’s not guaranteed the personal interest one might expect.
Who shot Martin Luther King, for instance? Do you know? We had to look it up – it was a man called James Earl Ray. And Ghandi? Nathuram Godse, whoever he is. But just because shooting big names dead doesn’t ensure the world knows your name, that doesn’t mean your story isn’t one worth knowing.
And that’s the premise behind The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the follow up to the critically and publicly-lauded crime drama series of 2016, The People Vs O J Simpson.
Both TV shows hit our screens under the wider banner of American Crime Story, the true crime sister to the increasingly bizarre (and increasingly bad) anthology series, American Horror Story. The creative force behind both Horror and Crime is Ryan Murphy, the showrunner responsible for other wildly successful televisual offerings such as Nip/Tuck and Glee. And, for this maiden episode of Versace, Murphy is behind the camera as well.
We begin on Miami Beach, Florida. It’s the summer of 1997 and an exceptionally rich and flamboyant man wakes up in an opulent beachside mansion, eats breakfast, gets dressed, pops out for a quick walk, returns home and has his brains blown out all over his front step. That man is Gianni Versace, the best-known and most successful fashion designer on Earth.
The man left holding the smoking gun? Andrew Cunahan. See? We told you assassinating famous people doesn’t guarantee fame. That said, by the end of this nine-part FX series, currently running on Wednesday nights on BBC 2, most of us will be pretty well versed in exactly who Andrew Cunahan was.
In fact, we’re going to be very well versed indeed. Only The Assassination of Gianni Versace may feature the Italian designer’s name rather prominently in its title, but this is firmly a series about his murderer and what drove him to gun down Versace in cold blood.
Our assassin, we learn in flashbacks, is less a professional hitman type than an obsessive Tom Ripley-esque character. A pathological liar with compulsive tendencies and a penchant for manipulation and social ascension, Cunahan was, in reality, just a low-level meth dealer and con artist. Until something switched in him and he decided to go on a killing spree that included killing the fashion world’s favourite designer.
Cunahan is played here by Darren Criss, a mostly theatre actor who you may or may not remember as Blaine Anderson in Glee. And, just one episode in, it’s fair to say already that Criss is outstanding in the role. Equally as impressive is the man behind Cunahan’s victim, Zero Dark Thirty and Che actor, Édgar Ramírez. The likeness between Ramírez and Versace is nothing short of incredible. Seriously. It’s actually quite unnerving at times.
The principal cast is filled out by two slightly more famous names. Penélope Cruz nails the accent as Versace’s sister Donatella and Ricky Martin nails the tight white tennis shorts as Versace’s live-in boyfriend, Antonio D’Amico.
The ‘La Vida Loca’ star’s tighty whities and the gaudy golden house the murder takes place outside of are not the only camp things in this opening fifty minutes. There are affected and theatrical elements to almost every scene, as you might expect and even demand from the subject matter and from the man behind Glee. But don’t let the highly camp atmosphere distract you – this is a twisted tale and, as the series evolves, we’re certain to see even more of the crazed psyche and violent mindset of Cunahan.
The series is based on Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History, and points out in the closing credits of episode 1 that while what we’re seeing is very much a true story, some elements are – and will be – dramatised for effect. This is no documentary, but – we’re led to believe – the narrative doesn’t veer greatly from the truth.
There’s a fair amount of exposition in this first outing, as is somewhat required to flesh out some of the background to the story. It’s not always the most subtle, but nor is it hugely clunky or jarring. Subtlety isn’t really the point here, anyway. This was – and remains – a truly sensational story about an assassination that, if the show proves a hit, might just be about to make a certain Andrew Cunahan closer to a household name than ever before.
You can join us back here every week for reviews of each instalment of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Did you catch The Assassination of Gianni Versace episode 1? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!