There’s a bravura moment in The Assassination of Gianni Versace – American Crime Story when murderer Andrew Cunanan, resplendent in a red PVC jumpsuit, dances wildly on his own in front of a group of bemused partygoers.
It’s not quite up there with Cunanan dancing in only a tiny pair of orange pants to Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’s Easy Lover as one of his pick-ups, a closeted gay elderly gentlemen, writhes in terror, his face a mask of gaffer tape. But it’s close.
If you haven’t seen The Assassination of Gianni Versace yet, then please, run directly to iPlayer with your arms outstretched and feast on any episodes that remain there. It’s brilliantly written by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (who also wrote one of my all-time favourites, BBC2’s London Spy, in 2015) and has an astounding central performance from Darren Criss as Cunanan.
I’d never heard of Criss (he was in Glee, which passed me by) but as Cunanan, he delivers the performance of a lifetime. (Cunanan murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace in July 1997, the culmination of a serial killing spree that left five men dead. Cunanan later killed himself as police closed in.)
What Rob Smith and Criss have done is make a whole person, someone who exists outside of those few bare details. Versace hardly appears in the series, which belongs almost entirely to Cunanan/Criss, as we witness a damaged life spin slowly, then quickly, then completely, out of control.
Cunanan seems at first the quietest of whirlwinds, a handsome boy who drips with charm and affability. But – and this is what Criss and Rob Smith are so good at conveying – there’s something a bit off, something not quite right you can’t put your finger on. Like a photo that’s a little out of focus. And then the killing starts. Brutal, swift, out of nowhere. Yet you’ve been expecting it all along, and not just because this is an infamous story. It’s because Criss’s Cunanan trembles with murderous fury, even when he smiles. Particularly when he smiles.
Rob Smith, who is so adept at digging into the dark mud of broken lives, cleverly throws out any accepted version of narrative to play around with the timeline, and with Cunanan’s descent.
So it’s only in this week’s eighth, penultimate, episode that we learn of his twisted childhood as the “special” son of a narcissistic, fraudulent, abusive liar of a father and a fragile, emotionally vulnerable mother.
Criss’s Cunanan is terrifying. Good-looking, personable, but you don’t want him around. There was a point in one episode, when he rang the doorbell of the man who would become his next victim, when I shouted, “Don’t answer the door, don’t let him in!”
Despite all of those very generous outward charms, you know straightaway why people around him find him unsettling to be with and uncomfortable to know. He’s obsessive and forces his way into “friendships” with unwilling men who just wish he’d go away. Or he preys on older gay men who’ve never been able to come out.
Of course, none of this is easy to watch, which is just as it should be. Cunanan’s story was inescapably one of obsession and violence. But as a cautionary tale about someone who wants above all else to be famous, it’s very, horribly, modern.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is on Wednesday nights at 9pm on BBC2