Darren Criss (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)

At the end of the second episode of The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, “Manhunt,” the culprit of the show’s titular homicide details an unbelievable curriculum vitae.

“I’m a banker. I’m a stock broker, I’m a shareholder. I’m a paperback writer. I’m a cop. I’m a naval officer—sometimes I’m a spy. I build movie sets in Mexico and skyscrapers in Chicago. I sell propane in Minneapolis. I import pineapples from the Philippines. You know, I’m the person least likely to be forgotten.”

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The biography is partially true, partially borrowed, partially made up of poses that actor Darren Criss strikes throughout The Assassination Of Gianni Versace so his character can accumulate ill-gotten wealth and status. Criss has his own impressive résumé (albeit one he can actually back up), a charmed career that includes stints as a boy wizard, a show-choir heartthrob, a genderqueer glam rocker, and a song-and-dance supervillain. But he’s never been as impressive as he is in the role whose name he calls out after “Manhunt” cuts to black, one in which the actor reveals previously unseen layers of poise, magnetism, vulnerability, and menace: “I’m Andrew Cunanan.”

In the annals of American serial killers, Cunanan’s name isn’t quite as infamous as your Jeffrey Dahmers, John Wayne Gacys, or Aileen Wuornoses. That’s bound to change following the nine episodes of American Crime Story’s second season, a worthy successor to The People V. O.J. Simpson anchored by Criss’ career-making portrayal of the murderer whose multi-state, three-month spree culminated in the 1997 shooting death of fashion designer Gianni Versace. With a chilling intensity owing its hair-trigger tics (and taste for Phil Collins) to Christian Bale’s turn in American Psycho, Criss does a shocking, winning about-face from his image as the apple-cheeked dream boyfriend of his Glee days.

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It’s also a towering lead performance that threatens to upend The Assassination Of Gianni Versace’s nobler aims. This is Cunanan’s story, to be sure, a tragedy of wasted potential and unrealistic expectations complicated by internal and external homophobia. But The Assassination Of Gianni Versace also seeks to give life back to his victims, and despite the valiant efforts of Edgar Ramírez, Mike Farrell, Finn Wittrock, and newcomer Cody Fern, those men never quite feel like more than satellites orbiting the show’s central figure. What we learn about them is typically stated by other characters praising the genius of Versace (Ramírez) and budding architect David Madson (Fern) or the generosity of Chicago developer Lee Miglin (Farrell).

Edgar Ramírez (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)

And as deeply reported as the source material—Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, And The Largest Failed Manhunt In U.S. History—is, the nature of the crimes depicted in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace means that Tom Rob Smith (who wrote or co-wrote all nine scripts) must fill in a lot of the blanks involving the relationships between predator and prey. Unlike those of his People V. O.J. Simpson predecessors, Smith’s characters weren’t on TV, making on-the-record statements, round-the-clock for the better part of a year. Cunanan is shown relishing the coverage of his crimes, but the quest to bring him to justice is far from an all-consuming media phenomenon. This feeds into Smith’s most pointed barbs about law enforcement’s mishandling of the Cunanan killings; along with The Assassination Of Gianni Versace’s reminders of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the prohibition of same-sex marriage and adoption, it’s an indication that 1997 is both ancient history and not as far in the past as we might like to think in 2018.

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Told in a reverse order that begins with Versace’s death and works backward toward Cunanan’s childhood, the limited series disposes of the murders before delving into the murdered; we know the names, the locations, the evidence before it actually factors into the larger story. And that’s what The Assassination Of Gianni Versace is: A story, one that constantly keeps the viewer on their toes as to when Andrew is and isn’t fibbing. While that sometimes leads to events being described in one episode, then dryly reenacted somewhere down the line, it also produces genuine surprise the few times the show confirms one of Andrew’s whoppers. Show and character alike know that the most compelling lies are built on a foundation of truth.

As such, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace plays better as parable than reportage. While it never quite becomes the twin narrative of Versace’s and Cunanan’s lives that’s hinted at in the early episodes, it continues using them as mirror images of one another: creator and destroyer, mother’s apprentice and father’s favored child, doting brother and prodigal son. When Versace is seen surrounded by family and collaborators in his gilded villa or sun-dappled studio, then Andrew is alone in unfurnished rooms, the camera pulling back to diminish him within the empty void. In scenes of startling horror and grueling humiliation, he’s a chimera of sins that are part biblical, part American: Wrath, greed, envy, lust, sloth, entitlement, exceptionalism. On paper, it seems so academic; with Criss’ energy and command, this version of Cunanan is as seductive and terrifying as the statue of Medusa that inspired the Versace logo. He could be a stock broker, a spy, a pineapple-exporter—he’s just that good a liar.

Reviews by Pilot Viruet will run weekly.

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