Credit Ray Mickshaw/FX
At some point we’ll all have to grapple with the idea that the warped compassion of the modern true-crime boom implicates its audience and that viewers are greedily lining up to be part of a lurid long tail of suffering and despair. If “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” were a little more interesting, maybe it would be that lightning rod. But instead it’s a surprisingly inert, if lushly imagined, tale.
Ryan Murphy, the show’s executive producer and the director of the first episode, broke out with “Nip/Tuck,” a daring plastic-surgery soap. With its Miami setting and toxic superficiality, it is the most direct antecedent to “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” more than other creations from Mr. Murphy like “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Feud” and even “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the widely acclaimed first “American Crime Story” installment.
“Tell me what you don’t like about yourself,” the glitzy “Nip/Tuck” surgeons would say to potential patients. That’s the undercurrent here, too. Self-loathing abounds, as “Assassination” repeatedly depicts the psychological effects of internalized homophobia and the miserable spiritual contortions required to stay closeted. In one particularly upsetting scene, a panicked Navy sailor is shown trying gouge off his own tattoo, lest he be outed during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. (Straight women get their own brands of insecurity, too, though they exist here as illuminating harmony, not story-driving melody.)
Darren Criss, best known as Blaine on “Glee,” stars as Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer who murdered Mr. Versace and four other men in 1997, before also shooting and killing himself. The mini-series is only occasionally about Mr. Versace (Edgar Ramírez) and is instead something of a biopic about Mr. Cunanan, though it bounces between their stories.
As the series reminds us many times, Mr. Cunanan wanted to be perceived as special. (“Being a part of something special makes you special, right?” Actually, that’s Rachel Berry on the pilot of “Glee.”). Mr. Criss is impressive and haunting as the mediocre con man and murderer, but “Assassination” is never quite sure what to make of its central figure, his narcissism or, perhaps, his sociopathy. FX made eight of the nine episodes available to critics, and in those episodes, the show neglects to crack its own case: Like many people, Mr. Cunanan (at least, the fictionalized version of him depicted here) was a habitual liar, a social climber and someone obsessed with fame and luxury. Unlike almost everyone else, though, he killed people.