james debate
james debate

Saturday 12 May 2018

Created by Ryan Murphy, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Network FX
Starring Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Penelope Cruz
Genre True crime
Running Time Varies

american crime story horror glee OJ simpson assassination gianni versace best show 2018

In its first season, American Crime Story tackled what is arguably the most famous criminal trial of all time, the People v. O.J. Simpson. As the first major dramatic depiction of one of the defining events of modern times, that first season generated a great deal of interest, and went on to garner widespread critical acclaim and a litany of awards. Now the question must be: how do you top the trial of the century?

For newcomers, American Crime Story is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story. Much like the latter, ACS is an anthology series, with each season focusing on a completely separate true-crime story, with a different cast and production crew.

The great success of those earlier series has established Murphy as genuine TV royalty, but it's fair to say he is not to everyone's taste. Murphy is known for a very specific style, one that is generally camp and flashy. Whether it’s the high-school musical antics of Glee, or the teen-slasher pastiche of American Horror story and Scream Queens, his shows can often feel like something of a guilty pleasure. It’s a style he brought with him to the first season of ACS, capturing the absurd circus and cartoon characters of the O.J. Simpson trial with typically ostentatious aplomb. But for the show’s sophomore season, ACS is going for a new, darker tone, one that is quite different to any of Murphy’s previous work.

Despite the name on the title-card, season 2 is the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his violent rampage that lasted three months, culminating in the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace. Unlike O.J., the story here is not the trial or the larger than life personas that turned a crime into a pop culture sensation. This season is about the killer and his story. It’s about unravelling the sequence of events that would lead an intelligent, charismatic, and otherwise unassuming kid to perpetrate such horrific acts. Anyone expecting something light and fluffy like the first season may be disappointed. What follows is a far more serious and considered exploration of events.

The new tone of the second season is apparent from the start with its stunningly shot opening sequence. Cameras pan across a sumptuous Miami sunset, where an obviously pained Cunanan howls at the sea, scars all over his legs, and a gun in his backpack. This contrasts with Versace’s luxuriant lifestyle, taking breakfast by the pool of his mansion, more Venetian palace than Floridian boardwalk. The two move wordlessly through their respective preparations against a backing of Adagio in G minor until coming together in a cruel symphony of violent fate.

Immediately the production quality stands out. This is a visually striking show with great attention to detail and cinematography that can often be jaw-dropping. The direction is as stylistically bold as one would expect from a Ryan Murphy show, and uses music and other sensory inputs to great effect (a particularly terrifying scene featuring Phil Collins' Easy Lover stands out). It's clear that a great deal of artistry has gone into the crafting of these episodes.

From this introduction the season works backwards, each episode revealing a little more of the events that led to the previous episode. I can imagine that such non-linear storytelling can be off-putting for some, but in this case it works brilliantly. Each episode really feels like peeling another layer from an onion, constantly challenging any preconceived notions you may have formed about Cunanan. One’s first impression might be of an unstoppable Patrick Bateman-esque psychopath, but you’ll soon come to see Cunanan as a jilted lover, an outcast, and a desperate fantasist.

As with the first season there’s a clear focus on the social pressures surrounding the tragedy. In OJ, it was about the racial tensions and how that played into the course of events. In Versace, it’s the stigma regarding homosexuality. ACS never tries to excuse or justify Cunanan’s actions, but by the time you get to the final episode you will at least understand how someone could pushed to the point of breaking. Indeed you might find the Andrew Cunanan story is one of sadness more than revulsion.

And all of this is held together by the career-making performance of Darren Criss. To be brutally honest, I would never have had him pegged for such a good actor, but in Versace he delivers a performance that has blown the critics away. Simultaneously charming and terrifying, monstrous and strangely sympathetic. It is no hyperbole to say that it's one of the best depictions of a serial killer in recent memory, and Criss will almost certainly find himself a frontrunner for this year's awards season.

The second season of ACS is quite remarkable. A more serious and mature affair than what one might expect following the debut season, with a bold narrative structure that explores the mind of a serial killer better than most TV series ever have. It may not have the name brand recognition of OJ Simpson, but marks a step up from the first season in nearly every way.

Newer Post Older Post Home