It’s never been a better time to be a serial killer.
Or, rather, a serial killer on screen. Baby-faced former Disney stars like Zac Efron and Ross Lynch step up to play necrophiliacs Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Charles Manson may be dead, but he’ll live on in Quentin Tarantino’s new movie. Are you into maids who may have murdered their employers in the 19th century or are old-school psychopaths more your style? There are shows about both, of course.
Ever since massive cultural events like Serial and The Jinx, pop culture has felt like a nonstop true-crime machine, with an eye turned specifically on revisiting (and sometimes glamorizing) the past. The first season of the Emmy award-winning American Crime Story recreated the O.J. Simpson trial with a contemporary lens: an empathetic focus on prosecutor Marcia Clark and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. Now, the show takes on the difficult task of revisiting the 1997 murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace and the manhunt that preceded it.
While the show’s second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, may carry the late designer’s presence in the title and its promotional materials—as well as a dramatic pre-premiere controversy over how much of the show is fictionalized—killer Andrew Cunanan is the series’ North Star around which the show’s far-reaching politics and storylines revolve. In fact, you shouldn’t expect the Versace family, despite how fun Penélope Cruz’s Donatella is, to take up much screen time at all. The show begins with Versace’s death and moves backward in time, tracing the steps of 27-year-old Cunanan as he compulsively lied and murdered his way through four states and five men in just a few months.
The choice to use this timeline may seem confusing, but it proves to be the perfect format for preserving Cunanan’s opaque backstory, which viewers are left to question just as any of his skeptical victims and partners had. Darren Criss (Glee) plays Cunanan with an almost addicting charisma and clinginess, giddily worming his way into the lives of wealthy gay men often as an escort and live-in boyfriend. And because of Cunanan’s story and its necessary accessories (luxury hotels, designer clothes, strobe-lit night clubs) this season is certainly aesthetically flashier than its courtroom-confined predecessor. Watching Cunanan dance wildly around a hotel room in a pink speedo to “Easy Lover,” as if he were in a music video and not sadistically torturing a client, you can see why the Versace family was reportedly uneasy about the series.
So Cunanan is the star killer and Gianni Versace may be his star victim, but the show’s best material takes place before their fatal meeting. In addition to Versace we get to know Cunanan’s other victims, naval officer Jeff Trail, architect David Madson, real estate developer Lee Miglin, and for a brief moment William Reese, from whom Cunanan stole a car. We also get to know some of their parents, siblings, pets, wives, and dreams. We see how they grappled with coming out, or not coming out, as gay.
It’s here in these backstories that the show takes most of its creative liberties, understandably connecting the gaps in the story with conversations and murder details we’ll never know, though much of the series does stand up to Maureen Orth’s reporting in Vulgar Favors. But whereas The People vs. O.J. Simpson revisited its crime with a clear focus (on racism, misogyny, a voyeuristic media), the ideas of the Assassination of Gianni Versace are more scatterbrained. The series explores ’90s homophobia and how it affected the way law enforcement scrutinized Cunanan’s victims and bungled his manhunt, plus a brief diversion into Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And with Cunanan, who was half-Filipino, constantly chasing the dream of Versace’s self-made success, there’s also a larger, more muddled story here about the dangers and pressures of the American dream.
But if there’s one thing this season of American Crime Story does depressingly well is award a specificity and humanity to Cunanan’s victims. Because while pop culture may be obsessed with murder, it’s not always concerned with portraying victims as real people with full lives that precede their deaths. We don’t get to know the victims of Richard Speck or Ed Kemper on Mindhunter, or the countless dead girls of CSI and Law and Order, or much about Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman in the first season of ACS. Our contemporary obsession with killers may continue in Assassination of Gianni Versace, but at least so do the lives of victims too.