The second season of “American Crime Story” is an absorbing, thought-provoking drama that will shock and disturb viewers.
Does it matter that entire sections of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” are fiction?
Here’s the thing. This follow-up to the nine-time Emmy-winning “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is the story of severely troubled Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss, “Glee”), who, en route to killing fashion icon Versace (Edgar Ramirez), on July 15, 1997, murdered four other people — bludgeoning Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) with a hammer, shooting David Madson (Cody Fern), stabbing Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell, “M*A*S*H”) repeatedly and shooting William Reese (Gregg Lawrence).
We know what Versace was doing up until the moment he was murdered; in flashbacks, we see a lot of him, his sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz), and his partner, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin). But we don’t know exactly what Cunanan was doing or what his motive was; he killed himself before he could be arrested.
Entire episodes portray what happened leading up to the murders, and the only people who know are dead. Much of this story is sort of a best-guess; Tom Rob Smith’s script is based on Maureen Orth’s book “Vulgar Favors.”
Yes, the production team went to great lengths to accurately re-create settings — filming at Versace’s Miami Beach home and copying it in great detail on a soundstage. But whereas “O.J.” and the book on which it was based worked largely from the court record, there is no such record for Cunanan and Versace.
Executive producer/director Ryan Murphy was quick to point out that “American Crime Story” is not a documentary but a “docudrama. So there’s always certain things you take liberty with” in an effort “to move toward something emotional.”
One of the most intriguing aspects is that, because Cunanan and four of his five victims were gay, the authorities did less than their best to capture him.
On TV • “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” premieres Wednesday, Jan.17, on FX — 8 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 11 p.m. on Comcast.
“It’s more than why [Versace] was killed. It is sort of why it was allowed to happen,” said Murphy, who came to the conclusion that Versace “really did not have to die.”
“One of the reasons Andrew Cunanan was able to make his way across the country and pick off these victims … was because of homophobia at the time,” Murphy said. “So I thought that that was a really interesting thing to examine, to look at again, particularly with the president we have and the world that we live in.”
That’s a conclusion left for viewers to make on their own. There’s no reference to Donald Trump in the eight episodes (of nine) screened for critics.
And, unfortunately, the homophobia subplot is the least-developed aspect of the series — and one for which there is an actual record. Unlike so much of the “American Crime Story” narrative.
“Between the Maureen Orth book and sort of our own speculation, there’s a lot of blanks to fill in,” Criss said.
Does any of this matter? As a drama, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is somewhat uneven but engaging. And it breaks out of the TV crime-drama mold.
It opens with what has become a TV trope, starting at the end of the story, with Cunanan murdering Versace and then flashing back. But it moves back in steps, portraying the third murder before moving back to the first two, then moving back to events leading up to the first two murders, and so on.
The victims in this nine-part series are portrayed sympathetically — even, in the case of Madsen, heroically. And it offers some understanding of how, perhaps, Cunanan turned into a serial killer by portraying his deeply disturbing childhood.
(Jon Jon Briones delivers a dynamite performance as Cunanan’s father, Modesto.)
So does it matter that much of this season of “American Crime Story” is fictionalized? Not as long as you watch knowing that’s the case.
This is TV, it’s not altogether history.