There are moments in FX’s outstanding “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” when serial killer Andrew Cunanan comes off like a horror movie villain. Played by Darren Criss, now many miles from “Glee,” Cunanan widens his eyes with loathing as if he’s about to explode into Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” His round wire-framed glasses give him the air of an ordinary preppie, a civilized look he has carefully cultivated, but his eyes are like switchblades about to spring.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” does, at times, try to explain to us how this desperate, heartless man evolved into a torturer and murderer by the time he was 27. We see how the social climber learns to fake it in order to make it, how his grifting ways grow increasingly ambitious and pretentious, how he exploits the gay closet for his own ends — at one point signing a postcard “Love, Andrew” and then “accidentally” mailing it to his closeted Navy friend’s parents. But most of all, the Cunanan we see in this series is a full-on monster, and his story is anything but a justification. It’s a portrait of a psychopathic con man who is, ultimately, an especially untalented Mr. Ripley.
Really, the most emotionally charged and sympathetic material in the series, which premieres next Wednesday at 10 p.m., belongs to Cunanan’s five victims and their families. The series, from Ryan Murphy, is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is how, in delivering a biography of sorts of Cunanan, it manages to humanize the people he hurt, not least of all Versace. The script, by Tom Rob Smith (“London Spy”), moves in reverse, beginning with the shooting of the fashion designer at his Miami Beach home and then tracking back through Cunanan’s previous kills. Each murder scenario is haunting and specific, as Smith shows us in detail how the men — four were gay, one simply saw too much — wound up in Cunanan’s sights.
Mike Farrell makes an extraordinary appearance as deeply closeted Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, who is pulled into Cunanan’s web and left dead in his garage, gay pornography strewn around him. The outline of Miglin’s relationship with Cunanan is the clichéd tale of an older gay man succumbing to a handsome twink, but in the hands of Farrell (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Joe Biden here) and Criss, it transcends the familiarity. As Cunanan sadistically tapes up the terrified Miglin’s face, you can see Cunanan’s class envy come to a boil And the series also gives us an intimate view of Miglin’s cosmetics-infomercial-making wife, Marilyn Miglin, who is in fierce denial about her husband’s sexuality, even after his body is found. She is played by Judith Light in a brittle turn that will break your heart, as she does a poignant battle with shame.
We also spend quality time with two of the young men Cunanan killed in Minneapolis, David Madson (Cody Fern) and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), the Navy officer Cunanan outed. Madson refuses Cunanan’s persistent romantic interest, which Cunanan takes out first on Trail, whom he blames. This segment of Cunanan’s story is given a particular boost by Fern, who is brilliant as the despairing Madson is kidnapped by Cunanan while in disbelief over the cold-blooded murder of his friend. Fern, a relative newcomer, is unforgettable and, like a number of actors in this cast, deserves Emmy attention.
Versace, too, becomes fully human in the series, much more than the chic celebrity Cunanan was obsessed with. The Versace family has come out against the series, in a statement whose words include “reprehensible,” “distorted,” and “bogus,” but Edgar Ramirez gives us a warm, gentle man. His Versace is separated from ordinary people by his fame and his money, which is all over his lavish Miami Beach manse, but he is also a man who is ultimately willing to jeopardize his business in order to come out as gay. He has an open relationship with his boyfriend, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), which appears to work for them both, and he has a particularly tight bond with his sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz), who takes over the business after his death. Cruz is solid in a role that, as Maya Rudolph on “Saturday Night Live” has shown, could easily fall into parody. Her accent, though, is inconsistent.
The first season of Murphy’s anthology series “American Crime Story,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” beautifully reframed the famous murder case through a lens of race, sexism, and reality TV. I’m not sure “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” manages to add contemporary political and cultural resonance to its serial killer story as effectively. We can see that the cops appear not to take these murders and the pursuit of Cunanan as seriously as they should, once they learn of the gay aspect. They help create a systemic homophobia that may have helped Cunanan stay free long enough to kill more. We can also see how homophobia in 1997 America, the year Ellen DeGeneres came out, long before gay marriage, may have made some of the victims more vulnerable to Cunanan’s evil.
But “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is nonetheless extremely insightful, as well as consistently entertaining. And the details of Cunanan’s story are less familiar than those of Simpson, so the episodes work on a suspense level, too. You don’t quite know what will happen next. The year has just begun, and already I’m thinking about my year-end top 10 list.
THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Starring: Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Judith Light, Mike Farrell, Finn Wittrock, Nico Evers-Swindell, Cody Fern, Max Greenfield. On: FX, Wednesday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.