Following its sophomore run, people are concerned series one was a bit of a one-hit-wonder. But was ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ really that bad, or did it just suffer from a terrible marketing campaign?

I am a huge fan of producer Ryan Murphy. After his hit shows Nip/Tuck and Glee, I’ve gone on to watch American Horror Story, Scream Queens, Feud and, most recently, American Crime Story – not a spin-off, but more of a cousin to AHS. When the first season of ACS came to BBC2 in 2016, my friends and I watched together in unison and live-texted each other updates. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the debut of American Crime Story was perfect and was, I think, one of the best seasons of television ever seen.

To follow up the series’ hugely successful debut, subtitled ‘The People vs. OJ Simpson’, Ryan Murphy immediately planned the show’s second, third and even fourth iterations. Their themes? Season two was set to follow the lives of people affected by Hurricane Katrina; season three was set to follow the iconic assassination of Gianni Versace; and season four was slated to depict the high profile affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Fast forward almost a year and the Lewinsky idea is out (reportedly, when Ryan Murphy consulted Monica Lewinsky on the idea, she didn’t feel comfortable about it) and season two ‘Katrina’ has been switched around with then-third season ‘The Assasination of Gianni Versace’. As someone who is impartial to looking into the lives of the rich and famous, the news of the upcoming Versace season excited me greatly; as a fellow fan of grandeur and glamour, I knew that Ryan Murphy could do it well. But what initially struck my friends – and me – was that this season was not at all what we were promised. For some, like myself, this was fine. But for others, it pushed them away.

The assassination of Gianni Versace

Photo: FX

Because you see, the main issue with The Assasination of Gianni Versace – and it didn’t have many – was that it isn’t really a show about the assassination of Gianni Versace at all. In fact, it feels as though the show had this title slapped onto it purely because the marketing team knew they could sell it better if it were called that. In actual fact, the second season of American Crime Story would have done much better if it had named itself The Murders of Andrew Cunanan as that is what the story truly followed. Instead of focusing exclusively on the murder of Gianni Versace, the show chronicles a whole host of murders committed by killer Andrew Cunanan, with some episodes scarcely including even a mention of the fashionable clan, never mind an appearance by the actors.

For me, I really wasn’t affected by this. In fact, I enjoyed the show a whole lot more than I anticipated I would and thought it was a fantastic series as a result of the perspective it took; even Ryan Murphy himself suggests that this season is “the best thing [he] has ever made”. I think that writer Tom Rob Smith did a fantasic job on breaking apart the character of Andrew Cunanan and exploring him from as many angles as possible. By the end of the season, I felt like I knew everything that could possibly be known about Cunanan – maybe even too much – and it was fascinating to see. It’s the kind of character study that you could only possibly explore over the course of 10 hours, something that a limited series really allows Smith and Murphy to do perfectly.

For some though, notably a few of my friends at least, the surprising story jarred them and made them turn away and I think that’s fair enough; when you’re sold one thing by a show’s marketing campaign, you end up feeling disappointed when it turns out to be different. The teaser trailers and marketing for the season suggested an in-depth look at Gianni and Donatella Versace, seemingly promising us 10 hours worth of haute couture and bitchy rich people. But instead, watchers were served up with a lot of poverty, seedy behaviour, drug abuse and violent murder. My Grandma for one – who I initially started watching the show with every Wednesday night – decided to give up after episode four because of this.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. Photo: Jeff Daly/FX

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. Photo: Jeff Daly/FX

Marketing campaigns aside though and I do really think that ACS’s sophomore run was fantastic in its own right. As I said previously, what struck me initially as being brilliant was its structure and detail that it was given thanks to head writer Tom Rob Smith. The story really was liberated in regards to time and had no problem in moving backwards and forwards through Cunanan’s timeline to serve different perspectives on the character. Its structure and its writing felt fresh and unique: while season one was pretty linear in how it told the story and was incredibly well written in its own way, Versace managed to be brilliant too and its structure served its story beautifully.

Of course, the show is only as good as it is because of its cast, too, and Darren Criss really knocked it out of the park with his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan. I think it’s hard to see people in different lights when you’re used to seeing them one way and after seeing Criss on Glee for so many years, I really didn’t think I’d be able to shake that off. But I did and Criss was amazing in a performance that surely earns him at least an Emmy nod, if not a win. Yes, the writing did an incredible job at making Andrew layered and extremely complex, but it was Darren’s performance that really brought that to life and made it so endearing. Kudos to him and his work.

The same should also be said for the rest of the cast of course. When we were first told of Versace, everyone was so sure that Lady Gaga would be playing Donatella (she is, of course, very close friends with the designer anyway), but it was later confirmed to be Penelope Cruz. At first, I was a bit upset by this change-that-never-actually-changed, but I’m so glad that I let myself get over that. As per usual, Cruz is a scene-stealer and I love her to pieces. Plus she makes an amazing scene partner to Edgar Ramirez’s Gianni and Ricky Martin’s Antonio. Judith Light – one of my favourite screen actresses – also gave a gut-wrenching recurring performance, as did Finn Wittrock and one of my favourite actresses ever, Annaleigh Ashford. These high-budget movie-style TV shows are made infinitely better by great casting (season one of ACS was proof of that) and Versace expertly played that to its advantage.

Assassination of Gianni Versace. Judith Light as Marilyn Miglin

Judith Light as Marilyn Miglin. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX

So when it got to the end of the season, I wondered to myself: what was the point of that, and what did we achieve by watching it? I know that not everything needs to have a moral behind it – that not all art needs a reason for existing – but when it comes to high-budget television, I think it kind of does. And knowing Ryan Murphy, he wants to anyway. What I took from The Assassination of Gianni Versace – or at least what I think that it wanted to say – was that a little help can go a long way.

The show tells us that Andrew Cunanan is a child of a very disturbed family, implying that he was driven to this madness as a result of his parents and bizarre upbringing. In a way, though it shows that Cunanan’s final murder was that of himself – a suicide – I think Tom Rob Smith really showed that he had been dead from long before. Who really was Andrew Cunanan? It seems as though no one really knew, not least Andrew himself. From a very young age, he was lying through his teeth about anything and everything, eventually driving himself so mad, he began to kill. Andrew Cunanan had, in one way or another, been dead most of his life and was, instead, simply surviving, but the flashbacks to his childhood suggested to me that it didn’t have to turn out this way.

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Over the course of the series, we see a whole slew of people enter into Andrew’s life, sponge what they could get out of him, and move on. His parents wanted to live vicariously through him, but when that failed, they moved on; rich men wanted him for their secret gay love affairs, but when that was over, they simply paid him off; even Versace himself appeared to use Cunanan for the way he made him feel, but always kept him at an arm’s length. So many people that passed through Andrew’s life identified a problem, but instead of finding a way to deal with it, they allowed it to fester within him, ultimately leading to carnage and tragedy. I don’t think the show necessarily makes a case for the audience to forgive Cunanan for what he did because in this instance especially, murder is inexcusable. I don’t even think that the show tried to imply that we should feel any sort of sympathy towards Cunanan and what he went through. But when it seemed to tell me by the end of it all was that it maybe wasn’t entirely Cunanan’s fault.

American Crime Story is slated to return with ‘Katrina’ soon.