When the first series of American Crime Story came out a couple of years ago, I immediately took against it. The dramatisation of the infamous murder of Nicole Brown and the subsequent trial of her ex-husband, OJ Simpson, seemed in the initial episodes to be ridiculous. The depiction of the well-known players in the case, particularly defence lawyer Robert Shapiro as realised by John Travolta (with a heavy touch of Ming the Merciless) seemed far too caricatured to be taken seriously.
Luckily, I stuck at it, mainly owing to my interest in the real-life trial that saw Simpson acquitted of the brutal murder. And as the show went on, the better American Crime Story got. The heightened, cartoonish style was, in fact, the show’s strength, rather than its weakness, as it allowed its narrative to unfold with an entertaining clarity.
The second season, which focuses on the shooting of Gianni Versace on the steps of his mansion in 1997 and follows both the build-up to and the aftermath of the killing, carries on in a similar vein.
The story jumps forwards and backwards in time, and in and out of Versace’s tacky mansion, dingy gay clubs and sun-drenched boulevards. Opera often booms in the background and the highly polished soap opera aesthetic proves to be perfectly suited to the show’s Miami Beach setting and fashionista trappings. It’s lurid and, at times, ludicrous, but is utterly compelling – and it’s like nothing else you’ll see on TV right now.
The casting is once again inspired, with Edgar Ramirez excellent as the slain fashion designer, Ricky Martin (yup, that one) as his lover and Penélope Cruz taking Travolta’s place as ham in chief with her turn as Versace’s sister Donatella.
Although the show gives plenty of screen time to these stars, it is the horrific but magnificent depiction of Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan, that truly grabs you. Darren Criss is perfect in the role, presenting this sadistic, Tom Ripley-like serial killer as someone who manages to be deeply sinister even when he’s turning on the charm.