Insinuate" is such a delicious word. It is suggestion at its most furtive, a sly whisper, a meaningful nudge. An insinuation stops well short of being direct—direct enough to trigger litigation, at least—yet is pointed enough to assassinate a character. It is something the most omniscient fictional characters throughout the ages have done most artfully, from Iago to Jeeves, bending less aware characters to their will, with but the timing of a cough or a specifically sharpened question mark.
I, for one, have always been fascinated by those who can insinuate themselves into a conversation. This cunning is demonstrated rather strikingly in the first episode of the second season of American Crime Story, titled The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, where would-be killer Andrew Cunanan is introduced to Versace at a crowded nightclub and, through rude but relentless persistence, wangles his way to the designer’s ear. His impudence is startling as he brushes off the man who introduced him to Versace while keenly working his way to the centre, making unwanted conversation and dropping entirely unsolicited details to get noticed. It is obnoxious but effective, and Versace is drawn to the man’s single-minded focus. It’s hard to look away.
That last line could exemplify this new season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story, streaming in India on Hotstar. It is an anthology series that looks at one dazzling crime per season. The first season—The People v. O.J. Simpson—was a remarkable true-crime narrative, a cinematic and nuanced telling of a story that continues to beggar credulity even though we all know how it turned out. The new season, based on the book Vulgar Favors by journalist Maureen Orth, is much less brilliant but much more shiny.
It is a baroque production. It is obvious from that gilded Medusa logo that Gianni Versace will be draped in couture and that he will clothe those around him in otherworldly outfits, but this series is entirely about gloss. Even the coffin he lies in positively gleams because of the show’s relentlessly polished aesthetic. We’re told Versace forgave beauty everything, and that’s what this show provides, stylized overture after stylized overture.
A swooping overhead drone shot of “bondi blue" waves and a sun-drenched beach is used to introduce us to Miami, while Laura Branigan’s Gloria—a song with inevitably built-in exclamation marks—plays loud and proud. A station wagon Cunanan steals is fire-engine red to go with his neatly tucked cerulean blue T-shirt, and even the mud spatter on the side of the vehicle looks just right. Forget the mesmerizing lushness of the Versace mansion. Even when the surroundings call for drabness, like the interior of a cheap motel, the pastel shades are pleasantly picked to match shirts and skies, and the relative lack of flash is compensated for with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the wall. Who wants verisimilitude when you can have va-va-voom?
The visuals are colour-corrected beyond Instagram filters, while the cast is unfairly attractive. The most dismal character on the show is blessed with Ricky Martin’s jawline (because the singer plays him), while Darren Criss, as the sociopathic serial killer Cunanan, shakes his hips wavily as he moves, as if he were an expensive handbag hanging off a high-heeled woman. One casting decision says it all: The distinctive-looking Donatella Versace is, flatteringly enough, played by Penelope Cruz.
This approach of sheen over subtlety makes an undoubted grab for the eye, but it is exhausting to constantly look past something this meticulously tailored. It is too designed—and while that may sound like an odd criticism for a show about a designer—that just might be the problem: This particular American Crime Story isn’t about Versace after all. Despite a tender and melancholic Gianni Versace portrayal by the great Édgar Ramírez (you may remember him from the Carlos miniseries), this is a show about the serial killer instead.
Criss is wonderfully supple in the chameleonic role of Cunanan, but this shape-shifting and obsequious artifice is too reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, without quite having the unpredictable edge of that great character. Cunanan juggles masks well, but the show only seems to beat with a human heart when he isn’t around, which isn’t very often. The most affecting scene in the early episodes, for example, comes when Cruz’s Donatella tightens the necktie around her brother’s corpse before breaking down far, far from the cameras.
Orth’s journalism has always been sensational and speculative, and this hastily written source material—combined with Ryan Murphy’s naturally lavish storytelling—feels too lurid to matter. This is a shame because there are telling moments throughout this new season, moments about homosexual heartbreak and gay struggles of the 1990s, which deserve place on a more affecting (and less affected) show.
“I don’t like his clothes," a man tells Cunanan about Versace. “That’s because you don’t know him," snaps Cunanan defensively. “I don’t know him," says the man, “but his stores have windows. I can see his clothes." Cunanan argues back passionately, saying that only when you are familiar with the artist and his heart can you truly appreciate the clothes and what they mean. The first season of American Crime Story allowed us to know people and made us reflect on their lives and choices. This season shows us their clothes.
Streaming tip of the week
Those fatigued by Padmaavat as well as those who like the film should check out Ketan Mehta’s exceptional Mirch Masala, newly streaming on Amazon Prime. The 1987 film, set in the early 1940s, features a fiery Smita Patil leading a group of women into rebellion against a monstrous subedar, played by Naseeruddin Shah. Sanjay Leela Bhansali salutes this in his own contentious climax about self-immolation, but the real thing is dynamite.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets @rajasen