‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ Is Fashionable, but Flat

Posted January 16, 2018 8:31 p.m. EST

At some point we’ll all have to grapple with the idea that the warped compassion of the modern true-crime boom implicates its audience and that viewers are greedily lining up to be part of a lurid long tail of suffering and despair. If “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” were a little more interesting, maybe it would be that lightning rod. But instead it’s a surprisingly inert, if lushly imagined, tale.

Ryan Murphy, the show’s executive producer and the director of the first episode, broke out with “Nip/Tuck,” a daring plastic-surgery soap. With its Miami setting and toxic superficiality, it is the most direct antecedent to “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” more than other creations from Murphy like “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Feud” and even “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the widely acclaimed first “American Crime Story” installment.

“Tell me what you don’t like about yourself,” the glitzy “Nip/Tuck” surgeons would say to potential patients. That’s the undercurrent here, too. Self-loathing abounds, as “Assassination” repeatedly depicts the psychological effects of internalized homophobia and the miserable spiritual contortions required to stay closeted. In one particularly upsetting scene, a panicked Navy sailor is shown trying gouge off his own tattoo, lest he be outed during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. (Straight women get their own brands of insecurity, too, though they exist here as illuminating harmony, not story-driving melody.)

Darren Criss, best known as Blaine on “Glee,” stars as Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer who murdered Versace and four other men in 1997, before also shooting and killing himself. The miniseries is only occasionally about Versace (Edgar Ramírez) and is instead something of a biopic about Cunanan, though it bounces between their stories.

As the series reminds us many times, Cunanan wanted to be perceived as special. (“Being a part of something special makes you special, right?” Actually, that’s Rachel Berry on the pilot of “Glee.”). Criss is impressive and haunting as the mediocre con man and murderer, but “Assassination” is never quite sure what to make of its central figure, his narcissism or, perhaps, his sociopathy. FX made eight of the nine episodes available to critics, and in those episodes, the show neglects to crack its own case: Like many people, Cunanan (at least, the fictionalized version of him depicted here) was a habitual liar, a social climber, and someone obsessed with fame and luxury. Unlike almost everyone else, though, he killed people.

Because the show doesn’t have a substantive exploration of why, exactly, Cunanan became a murderer, it toys with the when and the how of it all, primarily by introducing an often-confusing timeline. Each episode primarily takes place chronologically before the last, so the show largely moves backward. But this winds up being more obfuscating than illuminating.

The labored timeline is not helped by the equally labored dialogue. In an early episode, Andrew gushes about his obsession with Versace, who he claimed had been a romantic partner. Versace is “the man I could have been,” he says. “Been with,” his friend corrects. In a later episode, Andrew’s enraged mother asks if he’s drunk. “Drunk on dreams!” he shouts back. “Dreams?” she snaps. “What dreams?”

Other elements fare better, namely Judith Light as Marilyn Miglin, a Home Shopping Network maven whose husband, the Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, was one of Cunanan’s victims. In the throes of tightly wound grief, she explains the advice her husband had given her that made her a cosmetics mogul: “Just think of that little red light as the man you love.”

It’s what every character on the show is doing in some capacity, pretending to love or to portray love, trying to sell an image of beauty, perfection, desirability through a combination of adoration and sexual charisma. Whether that’s what any of the actual people did, though, is unclear.

The series is based on “Vulgar Favors” by Maureen Orth, a book whose contents the Versace family have disputed. They also said in a statement that “this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction.” While many outrageous-seeming details in the show are indeed factual (say, Cunanan’s open-shirted yearbook photo), other scenes are narrative composites or take place between people who are now dead.

This is neither a documentary, nor a deposition, and its responsibility may be to just be true enough. But there’s something tragic and unfair about becoming a spectacle in death, especially in a spectacle that’s more about a murderer than any of his victims. Not everyone in this story wanted to be famous.

Broadcast Notes:

‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’

Wednesdays on FX.