The Surprising Sensitivity of
Why The Assassination of Gianni Versace's portrayal of crime victims is so noteworthy
side from Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy is inarguably the most prolific — and successful — showrunner and producer working at the moment. Even if you don’t know him by name, you’ve likely seen at least one of his shows. Just in the last decade, he’s headed such long-term projects as Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, American Crime Story, and Feud.
Murphy is unusually skilled at what he does. Whereas other TV
producers like Aaron Spelling and Joss Whedon saw diminishing returns with increased notoriety, Murphy has managed to get better with age. When he’s particularly passionate about a certain subject, he can deliver, even if that means forgoing the quality of previous endeavors. (Notice how American Horror Story started sucking the moment he started putting all his attention onto American Crime Story.)
If Murphy has proven anything thus far, it’s that he’s at his best when he and his co-conspirators tackle heavy subject matters rooted in reality. His most acclaimed project to date, The People v. O.J. Simpson, was lauded for inviting viewers to reevaluate seemingly larger-than-life individuals and the story they played a part in. Last year’s Feud did the impossible and turned the oft-caricatured Golden Age actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into sympathetic, deeply vulnerable women.
Murphy’s latest project, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, is no different. Set in 1997, it revolves around the pre-stages and aftermath of the murder of the eponymous fashion titan, unfolding nonlinearly to showcase the shifting perspectives of Versace’s loved ones and, most notably, his murderer, Andrew Cunanan.
Though Murphy has not been as involved with Versace as he was with O.J., the series nonetheless capitalizes on what he delivered so well with the latter series and Feud: three-dimensionalizing extraordinary people made more untouchable by sensationalized storylines.
Yet what has caught my eye about this series, which is now at its midway point, is how superbly and sensitively it has characterized those who fell victim to Cunanan’s bloodlust. Before senselessly murdering Versace on the front steps of his beachside home, Cunanan also killed an acquaintance, a lover, real-estate developer Lee Miglin, and a handful of others.
So often in the media, victims are overlooked and underrepresented. Because they act as components of a larger, sickening narrative, they frequently serve as examples of a madman’s mania rather than actual people. There’s a reason why we likely cannot name even one of Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy’s victims off the top of our heads.
There is a danger, then, to programs like Versace. By rehashing a heinous crime, there is a risk of reinforcing the harms done by the media at the time the event occurred, unintentionally glorifying the crimes of a monster while minimizing his or her victims. This sort of thing is done on the regular: Popular true crime programs turn tragedies into entertainment and tend to emphasize the most sensational aspects of a crime.
Versace does give a lot of screen time to Cunanan, who is portrayed by the handsome, charismatic Darren Criss. But the show makes an effort to underline his beastliness and more prominently provide his victims with the moving narratives they should have been given immediately after their deaths.
Cunanan’s lover, David Madison, is portrayed as a kind-hearted, talented architect who struggled with accepting his sexuality until the day he died. Miglin is shown as a tortured spirit whose financial prowess couldn’t ease the pains of hiding his homosexuality well into his 70s.
Versace himself is not presented as the impenetrable demigod we might have imagined him as but rather as an anxiety-ridden individual very aware of his mortality. The episodes featuring these characters are less about Cunanan and more about how they were susceptible people who were preyed upon. Our hearts break for them in ways that weren’t as possible in the face of the inherently homophobic media frenzy of the late ’90s.
So while watching Versace, I couldn’t help but instead more often think about how rare it is — and how necessary it is — for a crime-based television show or a movie to so perceptively or emotionally portray victims. And how much better the show is for arguably giving more weight to the prey than to the predator. True crime shows, take note. This is how you should be doing it.
- FEBRUARY 16, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.