Why The Assassination of Gianni Versace Is the Year’s Most Underappreciated TV ShowPhoto: Jeff Daly/FX TV Features The Assassination of Gianni Versace
“Hiding? He wasn’t hiding.”
So says South Beach staple Ronnie Holston (the enthralling Max Greenfield) of his erstwhile “friend,” Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), in the season finale of American Crime Story. Though the episode culminates in Cunanan’s suicide, as the manhunt for the spree killer comes to an end, it’s here, under questioning, that Ronnie explains Cunanan’s motive—and with it The Assassination of Gianni Versace’s raison d’être, which is the belief that the meaning of stories is dependent on both their creation and their reception, each subject to proliferating points of view. “The other cops, they weren’t searching so hard, were they?” Ronnie asks. “Why is that? Because he killed a bunch of nobody gays?”:
You know, the truth is, you were disgusted by him long before he became disgusting. You’re so used to us lurking in the shadows and, you know, most of us, we oblige. People like me, we drift away. We get sick, nobody cares. But Andrew was vain. He wanted you to know about his pain. He wanted you to hear. He wanted you to know about being born a lie. Andrew is not hiding. He’s trying to be seen.
Ronnie’s monologue is indelicate, but it’s also imperative. Despite emphasizing the authorities’ negligence, their unwillingness to rub elbows with the queers at Twist or Warsaw Ballroom in order to catch Cunanan—despite elaborating, as I wrote at the start of the season, an ambitious, unorthodox, potent, frankly astonishing reconsideration of what it means to be and be called a faggot—the response to Versace from many critics has most often made it seem minor, or niche: “Serial killer porn” with “a cipher and supposition at its core,” a “short-story collection” set against Season One’s “epic,” “cheap” “wall dressing” instead of “uncompromising” high art, “a padded adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a “spectacle,” a disappointment, a flop. As The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever wrote, in the most explicit dismissal of this sort, “The failure of Versace is that it takes a case that is at best vaguely remembered (mostly by fashionistas and gay men) and tries to apply to it the same degree of resonance and insight [as The People v. O.J. Simpson].”
To crib from Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant exploration of “the male glance,” or the impulse to diminish cultural artifacts produced by, for, and about women, the reception of Versace begins to suggest its heteronormative corollary: “the straight glance.” Though Stuever’s linguistic slippage—between critiquing the series for failing to find resonance in the case and critiquing the case for lacking resonance in the first place—is the clearer tell, the implication is present in others’ digs, too, not least their remarkable alignment with the tacit hierarchies Loofbourow identifies. That The People v. O.J. Simpson leans on supposition and spectacle in its own right—from its tragicomic glimpses of Kato Kaelin, Faye Resnick and the Kardashian kids to the flirtation between Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark—or turns Simpson into a cipher—more symbol than character—of course goes unmentioned. In this hermeneutic, The People v. O.J. has the sweep of a historical epic, and a subject (Race in America) to match, whereas The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a cheap, compromised imitator, invested in problems—the AIDS crisis, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—that no longer plague us. In this hermeneutic, the former is drama, the latter “porn.”
Unsurprising, then, that so much of the critical discourse surrounding Versace fixates on the series’ treatment of homophobia, only to elide its essential queerness, or blithely raises the subject of certain cultural traditions—porn, opera, horror, camp—only to leave such associations more or less unexamined. The point here is not that Versace is above reproach—Richard Lawson’s superb, decidedly mixed review, for Vanity Fair, is proof enough of that—or that there should be no room for critics to disagree. It’s that the reception of Versace reproduces a familiar script, such that even critics sympathetic to the series seem as uncomfortable with its central subject as the Miami cops were with those South Beach fags. If one is to explain the season’s reduced “cultural relevance,” there’s no point beating around the bush with references to its tonal “learning curve”: In terms of generating the high ratings and broad critical acclaim that transform a mere TV program into a bona fide “phenomenon,” the most underappreciated series of the year so far—and, for my money, the best—might have been too gay for its own good.
In truth, Versace’s vexing reception illustrates the very resonance its critics suggest it lacks. If the season can be said to possess a singular theme, after all, it’s the one Ronnie echoes in his interrogation: For all the strides made on this front in the past two decades, American culture continues to undervalue, misunderstand, disdain, or simply ignore the queer experience—not because it’s hidden, but because we aren’t looking. Consider the series of episodes focused on Cunanan’s spree before he reached Versace, a daring, reverse-chronological-order disruption to the traditional structure of “true crime”: In “A Random Killing,” “House by the Lake,” and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which commemorate the lives of Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), David Madson (Cody Fern), and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and relate the profound terror of their deaths, Murphy, writer Tom Rob Smith, and directors Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Daniel Minahan offer a brief tour of queer convention. The roseate palette of Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light) and her cosmetics line reminded me of Douglas Sirk’s (or Todd Haynes’) melodramatic baubles, displacing repressed emotions onto an unhappy wife; the shower sequence that follows Trail’s gruesome murder is reminiscent of Psycho, with Cunanan standing in for Norman Bates; Madson and Cunanan’s twisted, tense, ultimately fatal road trip suggests the New Queer Cinema, via Gregg Araki’s The Living End. The queerest episodes of the series, aesthetically speaking, are those most desperate to be seen and heard—those committed, in the series’ most admirable gambit, to reasserting the presence of those so often erased in the glare of that morning in South Beach. (That this does not extend to Cunanan’s fifth victim, cemetery caretaker William Reese, is at once the series’ one glaring moral shortcoming and, perhaps inadvertently, further proof of its radical approach: In Versace, reacting to more than a century of screen entertainments, it’s the murder of a straight man that’s considered incidental.)
As Ronnie declares in the season finale, it’s the tabloid spectacle of Versace’s murder that finally focuses investigators’ attention, and following from his excellent Feud: Bette and Joan, Murphy renders the viewer complicit in the sensationalism, only to pull the rug out from under us as the series proceeds. If The People v. O.J. cuts through the haze of “the trial of the century” to (re-) discover the humanity of the attorneys on both sides, Versace (literally) works backwards from its most visible moment to do much the same for the men Cunanan murdered—interwoven with Criss’ gripping, genuinely harrowing portrayal of the monster responsible for making them characters in the same American crime story. In this context, the most common criticism of the series I’ve encountered, that its title is “misleading,” begins to read as nothing more than a form of derailment. The series does not promise a biopic of Gianni Versace, but rather the (longue durée) tale of his assassination, and it delivers: Trace its dovetailing threads back to beginning, and what emerges is a bracing acknowledgement that the forces by which a pair of strangers find themselves on opposite ends of a gun barrel are multi-stranded, root-and-branch—perhaps beginning with parents, family, community, society, but also including an inordinate number of forking paths, personal choices, possibilities opening and closing, fortune and fate. In its structure as in its queering of television tradition, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is an ideal meeting of form and function. What critics failed to see, in comparing it endlessly, fruitlessly, frustratingly, unfavorably to The People v. O.J. Simpson—in framing it as prima facie less “resonant” or “insightful” because it defies the mould of the “important” drama, the “unforgettable” case—is that the series is not in fact minor, or niche. It is, at its bruised and buried center, about a few of the central questions of queer life, and queer art: How to be, and when, and where, and to whom, and why the many seductions of the range of answers might go hand-in-hand with the many dangers.
I suppose this was the undercurrent of my earlier paean to the series, and to its treatment of “faggot”—that unutterable word, that unforgivable commonplace, that useful descriptor, that reclamation. To my mind—as to Ronnie’s, and perhaps to Murphy’s—the most fantastical figure in the series, the one I struggle to see myself in, is not Andrew Cunanan, with his shame, his fear, his eagerness to be seen and heard, to be “special.” It’s Gianni Versace. For the series’ nervy, imperfect, radical, frankly astonishing gambit is to suggest that the closet might be enough to drive anyone crazy—it’s a kind of “double consciousness,” for lack of a better term—and that there are nonetheless countless other factors separating assassin from icon. In its expansion of the possibilities for the queer stories we see on TV—movies got there first—Versace is an evolution, albeit a flawed one, and the resistance to reading it as such, I’d argue, is at the heart of critics’ failure to appreciate it.
It’s that “flawed” part, in the final estimation, that made the series irresistible to me, which Ronnie’s monologue—and its unplanned reminder of Cunanan’s own—so forcefully captures. Us faggots, we are bankers, stockbrokers, shareholders, paperback writers. We are cops, naval officers, and sometime-spies. We build movie sets in Mexico and skyscrapers in Chicago. We sell propane in Minneapolis, import pineapples from the Philippines. We are queens and con men, somebodies and nobodies, fashion designers and fledgling TV critics, assassins, icons, and everything in between. The season defines itself by its refusal to hide the range of queer stories—of human stories—that TV can spin, stories of success and failure, love and hate, heroism and villainy, life and death. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which focuses on a man desperate to be remembered, another too famous to be forgotten, and those whose legacies deserve to be respected—reclaimed—is ultimately animated by one central belief, one indelicate imperative: Queer lives matter, and not just their ends.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.