On March 21st, a Wednesday night, 1.2 million people across the United States huddled around television screens and laptop monitors to witness the bittersweet denouement of FX’s true crime anthology series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which stars Penélope Cruz, Darren Criss, Édgar Ramírez and Ricky Martin. The show, which operatically back-pedals through serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s (Criss) untempered orgy of violence, delivered one last exhibitionist image in “Alone,” its ninth and final episode: Cunanan, swaying on a two-story houseboat in Miami Beach, places his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. And so, in the blink of an eye, a fleeting series that recalled the senseless killings and fruitless FBI pursuit of murderer Andrew Cunanan drew to a lurid close. But what didn’t pass on for me, as a true crime purist, was the burning question the prestige of this genre never fails to invoke:
Is it inherently wrong for shows like American Crime Story to reanimate real people, only to slaughter them for the sake of profit and entertainment?
When it comes to the seductive nature of the true crime species, criticism regarding the validity of factual representation is inevitable. But it’s an especially prickly situation when those appearing in the retelling are still alive: Michael Oher felt infantilized by his character in The Blind Side; Lil’ Kim thought Notorious painted her as a shallow nymphomaniac; psychologist Philip Zimbardo was wholly unimpressed with the 2002 release of The Experiment. (“It makes Stanford and me and psychology look bad.”) And just days into the inaugural month of January, less than two weeks before the premiere of Versace: ACS, the Versace joined this exasperated lineage, making their own concerns public: “The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace,” a representative explained in a statement. “Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction.” The unrelenting series is predicated on the “fact-based reporting” of journalist Maureen Orth‘s 1999 book, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.
The formality of the Versace family’s statement was a façade professionally absent of emotion — months earlier, Versace’s lover, Antonio d’Amico, fiercely expressed his anxieties about the show’s premise: “So much has been fictionalized. Unfortunately, Gianni died. Unfortunately, this guy killed him. Unfortunately, it happened: but now, let it drop,” he pled.
The true crime genre satiates the curiosity and wading boredom of the common Netflix addict. From options from Making a Murderer to The Keepers to The Jinx, an expansive arsenal of TV voyeurism exists at the click of a button. But beyond the climbing viewer tolls and critical acclaims these shows tend to garner (American Crime Story is already an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning series), there are real people off-screen whose lives are being scrutinized and consumed. The death of a person whose family likely still privately grieves at the sound of their name becomes a public spectacle, existing as a vehicle for the profit of television networks. The imagination isn’t strong enough to access or empathize with the emotions of those who are thrust back into an interrupted mourning cycle, reliving the traumas of a loved one’s death.
In May 2016, a woman named Lauren Bradford wrote an agonizing op-ed in The Guardian about the impacts of the true crime genre. Bradford’s father and his mistress killed her mother in 1991; in 2016, a miniseries called The Secret emerged to tell the story — despite the resistance of Bradford and her family. “When media interest goes beyond the reporting of events and is against the wishes of family members, the effects can be as devastating as the murder itself,” she wrote. “People bereaved by murder have no voice. And yet some members of the media industry continue to exploit the murder-bereaved and victims of crime in pursuit of entertainment.” Bradford went on to detail how truths were rewritten and embellished; how she was berated by the social media and PR buildup around the series; how the production company trivially misspelled her deceased mother’s name in her correspondence with them.
Versace: ACS has all the hallmarks of an excellent true crime series, and speaks to overarching themes of homophobia, HIV, drug addiction and, according to producer Ryan Murphy, feminism. But summoning these people at the beginning of an episode only to bloody them by the end, all for the purpose of dramatic entertainment (and the subsequent mountains of profit and critical acclaim) seems, for the most part, inherently voyeuristic and exploitative. In transforming real people into symbols, or vehicles, to explore these greater themes and stories, we strip them of their humanity, whittling them down to fabled characters who live on screen to dance for the viewer on nightly programming. The splendor of a human being, twice erased, is at once compressed, and the difference between their grandiosity and potential monotony becomes a variable solved by the performance of the actor.
People are not chess pieces that can fit into campy, macabre TV dramas. And when the people involved in these portrayals are rearing their heads at the images, it’s important to interrogate to what end these shows exist, and whose interests they are serving. The people on screen no longer belong to their families. Private grief, as Bradford says, becomes public property.
Dramatizations, of course, are both valuable and important. Versace: ACS was particularly excellent, perhaps both in spite of and because of its enthralling darkness (and compelling acting). And beyond ACS, films such as Spotlight and Schindler’s List construct portals into tragedies that have had longstanding impacts and affected generational trauma. But it’s vital to question how healthy our relationships and ultimate consumption of these “stories” are. How do we reconcile our fascination with these shows when the families whose lives have been intruded never gave their authorization?
Gianni Versace was employed as a starting point for a series that intricately moves reverse chronologically through the violent escapades of a serial murderer. And as we roam further away from his death, we almost forget the lingering image of his mangled body, stretched across the lap of his lover like some depraved iteration of Michelangelo’s Pietà. His corpse, by the second episode, becomes a person again, with a cadence that suggests a future without a bloody end. Versace overcomes HIV; he reveals to the world he is gay; his lover abandons his tendency to procure sexual partners for them in favour of monogamy — for a moment, we forget how this all ended. But forgetting is a luxury the Versace family does not have.