TV

Why Viewers Aren’t Ready to Make “Versace” a Cultural Phenomenon Like “O.J.”

“I think that for a hetero-dominant culture, we’re not there yet,” says FX’s John Landgraf

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When American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson debuted on FX in February 2016, it was the most-watched premiere of an original scripted series in the cable channel’s 22-year history. And no wonder: Like the steadfast hits of the Eighties and Nineties that TV execs are now joyfully rebooting, FX’s subject was an inescapable pop-culture phenomenon — the “trial of the century,” which has held Americans tight in its grip in the 20-plus years since the conspicuous case collided with a burgeoning 24-hour news cycle.

It’s hardly a surprise that the ratings for the second installment in the Ryan Murphy true-crime anthology series, subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, have so far been much lower: While the O.J. premiere drew a rare-these-days 8.3 million total viewers — that number rose to 12 million after accounting for FX’s “encore” airings — Versace’s first episode, which aired two weeks ago, pulled in a still-impressive 3.6 million viewers live, and 5.5 million factoring in repeat broadcasts. (For context, Game of Thrones may regularly attract a per-episode audience of 8 to 10 million viewers , but even critical darlings like Big Little Lies don’t necessarily bring in those numbers; none of the HBO miniseries’ seven episodes drew even 2 million live viewers.)

If you were old enough to remember the O.J. trial blaring out of countless TV screens and newspaper headlines for a solid year, The People v. O.J. Simpson was not just great TV but a chance to relive that indelible moment through a fresh lens, like a revival of a beloved sitcom. Versace’s smaller audience is somewhat inevitable, and it reflects a central revelation of the series: that law enforcement only began to seriously pursue a string of murders of gay men at the hands of a cagey 27-year-old named Andrew Cunanan when he killed a fifth gay man who happened to be famous.

The crime described in the show’s subtitle occurs within the first few minutes of the premiere, when Cunanan (Darren Criss) guns down Versace (Edgar Ramírez) in front of his Miami Beach mansion. The subsequent episodes move backward, tracking Cunanan’s killing spree from Minneapolis to Chicago to rural New Jersey. (The show is based on Maureen Orth’s 1999 book, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.) Along the way, we meet his victims: Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and David Madson (Cody Fern), both friends and former lovers of Cunanan; Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), a Chicago real estate developer who’d hired Cunanan as an escort; and William Reese (Gregg Lawrence), a caretaker at a cemetery who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As I wrote in my review, Versace is a bit of a bait and switch: It’s not really about the famous Italian designer and his soon-to-be-famous sister Donatella (Penélope Cruz). The Versace family merely frames the story of Cunanan, an accomplished bullshit artist who worked at a local pharmacy while living with his mother in San Diego — before he got a taste of the high life when he landed a gig as a live-in escort for a wealthy, elderly gay man. The more we learn about Cunanan’s past, the more the show — aided by a compelling, three-dimensional performance from Criss — emphasizes the man’s internalized shame. (For more on the show’s interrogation of this suppressed self-loathing, read Matt Brennan’s review at Paste.) Along the way, we also learn about his victims; the fourth and fifth episodes, which delve into David Madson’s and Jeff Trail’s backstories, are particularly affecting, and the fact that the show devotes so much run time to tell their stories is a refreshingly uncynical approach in an age of arrant celebrity worship.

In the two decades that have passed between Versace’s murder and this series, mainstream culture has reached the point where the most heavily promoted series in a major cable channel’s current lineup tells the kind of story that would’ve been labeled “niche” just a few years ago, simply because of its lack of a straight, male perspective. “One of the things that excites me about this era of television is that you can come at it from any character’s point of view, or any showrunner or creator’s point of view,” FX CEO John Landgraf told me over the phone. “You don’t have to make reference to the majoritarian point of view, whether that’s male or white or heterosexual.”

(Landgraf has been vocal about the need for TV executives to reform their hiring practices. In 2015, Maureen Ryan wrote a Variety article lambasting networks for hiring so few women and people of color to direct their shows, and FX in particular had a bad track record: Just 12 percent of its series in the 2014–15 season were directed by people who were not white men. In the wake of that study, Landgraf vowed his network would work to close that gap, and at the 2016 TCA Press Tour, he announced that 51 percent of the directors booked at that time were women or people of color.)

Landgraf acknowledged that Versace so far hadn’t been as “widely accepted” as O.J. “It’s pretty dark material,” he said. He suspects the cooler response has more to do with the lingering perception that stories told from the perspectives of gay people are still coded as “alternative.”

For the record, I really like The Assassination of Gianni Versace; yes, it’s a lot darker than The People v. O.J. Simpson, and its narrative structure — on top of the fact that it tells a less-familiar story — demands more from the viewer. Still, I suspect the fact that its early ratings are such a comedown from the previous installment, and that it hasn’t been welcomed into the new TV season with quite as much fanfare, says less about the show than it does about us.

“My gut feeling is that it’s still hard to put that point of view out there,” Landgraf told me. “I think there’s a process, a pathway, from rejection and bigotry to a willingness to be in somebody’s skin, and a willingness to consider their skin as valid as your skin. And I think that for a hetero-dominant culture, we’re not there yet with gay people.”

Still, Versace is a big step toward that brave new world. And while viewers in the States may not be quite as rapt with this story as they were with O.J., in Italy, the show has earned record ratings, with 700,000 tuning in to watch the premiere — compared to 572,000 who watched the seventh-season premiere of Game of Thrones. Who’s gonna tell them this is a show about the constraints of gay identity in 1990s America?

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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