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In ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace,’ the Camera Stays on the Victims

If there’s one thing that separates the second season of ‘American Crime Story’ from other murder dramas (and a certain show on TNT), it’s the concerted effort to make you care about the people who suffer most

TNT/FX/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

When Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and David Madson (Cody Fern) return to the latter’s sleek, minimalist apartment, something is immediately amiss. David’s dog is tied to a coffee table, and their mutual friend Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is waiting unseen across the hallway. That’s when it happens: Andrew snaps. He bludgeons Jeff with a hammer, blood spraying everywhere. David (and his poor dog) can only look on in horror from the other side of the room; as most of this unfolds, the camera remains affixed to David’s terrified expression. Blood occasionally splashes on his face.

Gruesome scenes like this one at the start of “House by the Lake,” the fourth episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, are a familiar sight for a medium that’s been historically obsessed with killers. But each portrayal is different, and how a TV series depicts a murder tells you a lot about its intentions. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal turned many of its deaths into baroque pieces of bloody art, relishing in the creative ways victims could be disposed (death by electric eel is definitely … different). On the opposite side of the spectrum was Dexter, whose eponymous serial killer would do just about the same thing every time — a calculated routine devised over decades that carried out like an everyday chore. As for Versace, Cunanan’s murder of Jeff Trail is the beginning of a violent, agenda-driven killing spree.

Because Versace plays out almost entirely in reverse chronology — beginning in the premiere with the fashion mogul’s death at the hands of Cunanan before the opening title comes into view — the audience knows we’re seeing is Cunanan’s first murder, despite it being the final one presented onscreen. The show continuously folds into itself, in the process delving into Cunanan, studying how and when the seeds were planted before they blossomed into this narcissistic, entitled, and dangerous personality.

However, what makes Versace a unique presence in an ever-crowded television landscape has less to do with its Nolanesque chronology or its insidious killer than it does how much attention the show dedicates to the people who were killed, the lives that were affected by these murders, and how a society plagued with systemic homophobia enabled Cunanan to claim five total victims — culminating in the death of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) on the steps of his opulent mansion. By devoting screentime to Versace and Cunanan’s lesser-known victims — with the exception of William Reese, whose death was the result of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time — the show empathizes with the discrimination each faced as a gay man in ’90s America and the institutions that failed them. In Versace, there’s more than one killer.

The fifth episode of the season, which aired Wednesday night, flashes back to Trail’s first meeting with Cunanan, in addition to his time as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. The title of the episode, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” is self-evident, and Trail suffers from the Clintonian policy. When one gay soldier offers to out other gay military members who frequent a well-known hookup spot as part of a deal to avoid dishonorable discharge, Trail uses a knife to remove his biggest identifier, a tattoo on his leg. The closest Trail gets to coming out is agreeing to be interviewed by a news program for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” package. Trail’s experience in the episode is juxtaposed with that of Versace’s coming out in a magazine interview with The Advocate. As Versace is invited to a glitzy hotel suite to sit down for a cover story alongside his partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), Trail meets his interviewer in an unbecoming motel room, his face is shrouded in darkness to avoid identification. It’s less of a coming out than an affirmation that he needs to stay in the closet — or leave the Navy entirely.

Versace makes his decision to come out in spite of his sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz), who pleads with him to reconsider for the sake of the financial future of their business. The show paints this less as a success of the individual than an indictment on just how large you have to be to avoid public discrimination — coming out might be OK, so long as you’re a multimillion-dollar fashion designer. How the gay men of Versace react to societal homophobia affects them in wildly contrasting ways — Versace sits atop a fashion empire, while Cunanan, fixated and jealous of the designer’s rarified experience, becomes a con man and, eventually, a spree-killer targeting other gay men. Then there’s someone like Trail, suffocating from the effects of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “I can’t help feeling that by talking to you it’s the end of my career,” he tells his motel room interviewer. “But maybe my career actually died a long time ago.”

Cunanan leverages this rampant homophobia against both Trail and Madson. He sends Trail’s family a letter addressed to him that heavily implies their son is gay while he’s still closeted, trying to force his hand. And after killing Trail in Madson’s apartment in “House by the Lake,” Cunanan convinces Madson that calling the cops is the worst possible idea — he’s a gay man with a dead body in his apartment, who are they going to believe? — and that they need to run off together. Cunanan preys upon these men’s insecurities, using society’s homophobia as a trap, while also seemingly lashing out because of it.

Trail, Madson, the Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) from Versace’s third episode — these are tragic figures, undone by shame brought upon by outdated norms. Seeing them broken down in reverse chronology, knowing they’ll fall victim to Cunanan, makes it all the more heartbreaking. That Versace devotes the time necessary to show how these characters were victims — specifically to a rage-filled spree killer and more broadly to a repressive society — speaks to what the series cares about. Versace could luxuriate in the violent, sociopathic tendencies of Cunanan, or, as more befitting of creator Ryan Murphy, envelope itself in Versace’s elegant, campy world of fashion, but it doesn’t. At times Versace might be more interesting to think about than to watch unfold onscreen, but the series’ intentions — much like its time-bending narrative — are a particularly unique sight on television, and especially among crime shows.

You have to switch the channel to TNT to see how a more traditional murder series unfolds. The Alienist, based on Caleb Carr’s popular ’90s crime novel of the same name, is TNT’s attempt to get in on the prestige TV craze. It certainly looks the part: 1896 New York is convincingly, stunningly re-created by way of Budapest, and an A-list trio of Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning lead the competent cast.

Bruhl is the titular alienist (an archaic term for a psychologist), trying to solve a series of violent murders of cross-dressing boy prostitutes in the city. A killer is preying upon a heavily discriminated demographic, and the police aren’t doing anything about it. Through the first four episodes that have aired, the police department’s incompetence is revealed as a latent mix of homophobia and corruption; the cops consider the victims amoral and unnatural, while unseen figures are convincing them to turn the other way, implying the killer is of wealthy stature. Much like with Versace, you can’t help but wonder how quickly the killer would’ve been caught if the police actually did their jobs.

However, The Alienist is less interested in the weight of the killer’s actions on a marginalized community than the macabre details of the mutilated bodies left behind. The show feels needlessly exploitative from the onset, when the camera zooms into the gouged eye sockets of a new victim in the premiere as a means to introduce the show’s credits. The Alienist places gore above nuance when just talking about the brutality would suffice. As a result, the victims in The Alienist have no agency at all, alienated from their own story for cheap, familiar thrills.

Granted, The Alienist isn’t alone in committing this sin among crime shows, which tend to fixate on the killer or crime solvers (or both) and use those who were murdered as window dressing on a larger story. What was True Detective Season 1, if not an endless stream of Matthew McConaughey monologues before a showdown with the Yellow King?

Perhaps The Alienist’s tactics wouldn’t feel so frustratingly rote if Versace weren’t running concurrently. Versace contains multitudes; it is a portrait of a killer, a condemnation of America, a race through time. But most of all, Versace is a tragedy — of the people who were lost, whose lives feel fully realized onscreen as they’re simultaneously taken away by Cunanan. Television has seen so many crime shows, and so many serial killers, that most viewers are numbed by the deaths of their victims. Versace’s greatest strength as a series is the way it makes you care again.