American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace tries to test the viewer’s appetite for classical beauty. In long, slow, largely wordless sequences, Ryan Murphy’s camera pans over the ornate tiling of the Versace villa, over the sun-kissed pastel facades of ’90s Miami Beach, and over the speedo-clad bodies that inhabited both. The lens will swoop and dive through a cavernous club populated by shirtless men in angel wings, or it will hover, gnat-like, right up against Penélope Cruz’s face. Often, in these moments, the sound of opera plays.
The follow-up to 2016’s award-and-acclaim-and-audience-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson spirals out from the 1997 morning when the designer Gianni Versace was gunned down by a serial killer and escort named Andrew Cunanan. Versace, we’re told early on by his sister Donatella (Cruz), had “a weakness for beauty.” The show is clearly hoping that audiences will share that stereotypically Italian trait as it channels Federico Fellini and The Godfather. Murphy is more of a workman than a high artist, though, and his meanderings here muddle an intrinsically strange, socially resonant story.
There are indeed some pungent visuals, including when Versace’s lacquered coffin is licked by the flames of an incinerator, and when a procedural police interview is made surreal by an outrageous backdrop. Yet Murphy’s wide-ranging catalogue (Glee, American Horror Story, The Normal Heart) has been more defined by the grotesque than by the gorgeous, and his methods often feel cheap. Whether with chalkboard-scratch strings overused to inject suspense, or with scene-dominating monologues spewing out exposition, he leans on the tricks of industrialized TV to a deadening extent. Last year, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope showcased a truer episodic tribute to baroque (and yes, Italian) sensibility: forceful, hypnotic, uncompromising. By contrast, Murphy’s lavishly decorated wall dressings feels like, well, wall dressing.