LOS ANGELES — Has fashion’s big moment on television finally arrived with the docudrama “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the long-awaited installment of “American Crime Story” that begins airing on Wednesday on FX?
This show centers not on Mr. Versace, the storied Italian designer fatally shot on his doorstep in Miami at age 50 on July 15, 1997, but on his killer, Andrew Cunanan, whose three-month murder spree culminated in his suicide at 27 a week later, leaving any motive a mystery. Mr. Versace doesn’t even appear in some episodes. Much of the season is told backward, beginning with the murder, and then working through Mr. Cunanan’s origin story, going back to his childhood.
It’s grittier and bloodier than its predecessor, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” which skipped the two gruesome murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and focused instead on the madcap trial that followed, setting ratings records for FX and winning Emmys and Golden Globes aplenty.
“We knew we didn’t want to do ‘O.J.’-lite,” said Brad Simpson, an executive producer of the series. “We didn’t want to have the exact same tone or vibe because we felt like that’s something we couldn’t match. This is much more about crime.”
“‘O.J.’ was very frenetic,” said Ryan Murphy, another executive producer. “‘Versace’ is lot slower and grander in its compositions. That’s one of the turn-ons of the show for me. Every season, we’re going to take on a crime, we’re going to look at broader social issues, and every season will have a different tone.”
This one is two-toned. There is the color of Mr. Versace (Edgar Ramirez), whose over-the-top sensibility brought celebrities to the front row, and who helped nurture his younger sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz), into a star in her own right. In the series, life is getting better for Mr. Versace before his death: His fashion house is about to go public; he is out and proud, rare for high-profile gay men at the time; and though he is H.I.V. positive, new medication is making him stronger.
Then there is the darkness of Mr. Cunanan (Darren Criss), who had a taste for the high life but appears to have made few earnest efforts to get there. The series focuses on his hideous unraveling from social climber to killer. In all, he murdered five people, including two friends, and at least three, and possibly four, gay men.
Much of the series is based on “Vulgar Favors,” Maureen Orth’s 1999 book about Mr. Cunanan, from which the Versace family has distanced itself. “The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about Mr. Gianni Versace,” the fashion label said in a statement last week. “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.”
Regardless of its genre, ratings estimates indicate that roughly half the audience that tuned into “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” will not return for this season, said John Landgraf, the chief executive of FX, and he’s just fine with that.
“We’ve made a show that by definition that a gay man that’s lived through this experience is going to have a richer, deeper connection to this material than a straight guy who lived through that period of time,” Mr. Landgraf said. “That’s probably not the most commercial choice you could make in America, but the way you get to great television is to ask people to go into experiences that are compelling but that are challenging.”
Such experimentation makes FX an appealing line item on the slate of properties that the Walt Disney Company is looking to buy from 21st Century Fox, in a deal that will depend on regulatory approval. Mr. Murphy, a hitmaker whose contract expires later this year, has said he is not sure if he will stay with Fox after the Disney sale.
He said he was inspired to do the show because he was living in Los Angeles at the time and gay men in all major national metropolises were transfixed by the story, and terrified Mr. Cunanan would be arriving in their city next. But when Mr. Murphy proposed a season about Mr. Cunanan three years ago — well before the Simpson series debuted — it gave his colleagues pause.
Nina Jacobson, a producer of the series, politely nodded along before she went home to Google the killer. “I was pretty much in the dark,” she said. Brad Simpson, another producer, had a dim memory, too, and wondered if there was “enough meat on the bone.”
Compared with the abundance of coverage around the O.J. Simpson case (tons of books, boundless archives of material), the public’s fascination with Mr. Cunanan’s murder spree was faded like a pair of acid-washed jeans.
But the producers saw bigger themes in Ms. Orth’s book. If Mr. Simpson’s trial touched on racism and sexism, the Cunanan tale connected to something else: the shame of the closet, the remarkable difficulty of being openly gay in the 1990s.
“‘American Crime Story’ at its core only works if you’re telling a bigger story about a societal ill,” Mr. Murphy said. “So I thought, ‘Can we do something on homophobia in the ’90s and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies at the time that I think and ruined so many lives?’ And it’s more topical than ever now with this president who is all about discrimination and exclusion.”
Ricky Martin, who plays Mr. Versace’s longtime lover Antonio D’Amico, was himself in the closet in 1997. During multiple time jumps in the series, Antonio is presented as both devoted lover when Mr. Versace was in the closet, and then devoted and even happier lover after he came out.
Mr. Martin said that his performance was informed by two things: just how much better it is to be proudly out now, and the embarrassment that he felt considering how he treated his former partners while he kept his sexuality secret.
“I went back to my life and what my life was in the ’90s: big closet,” he said. “I made my lovers be like Antonio where he was kept in the shadows and kept in the dark back in the ’90s. It took me back to a place, where, see, it was not necessary. I go back to Harvey Milk where he said everyone has to come out and we have to normalize this. So for me, I was playing both roles. I was playing the man coming out and the relief of it, and the lover, the victim.”
It wasn’t hard for Mr. Murphy to secure Mr. Martin’s participation.
“I used to live in Miami when the actual crime happened,” Mr. Martin said. “Although I never met Gianni personally, I was invited to that house many, many times. And for some reason I never went. I had a Giorgio Armani campaign back in the day, so I’m sure that didn’t help!”
Never one to miss a red-carpet opportunity, the house of Armani last week blasted out a news release announcing that it had dressed Mr. Martin, Mr. Criss and Finn Wittrock, the actor who plays one of the Cunanan victims, for the Los Angeles premiere of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
Ms. Cruz chose a Stella McCartney dress for the premiere. A 2009 Academy Award winner for her performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” she called Donatella Versace, with whom she had come into contact “here and there” over the years, after being cast.
“She said to me, ‘If somebody is doing this and play me, I’m happy that it’s you,'” Ms. Cruz said. “We spoke for one hour. It was a very good conversation.” (Ms. Versace did make one request of the producers, which was granted: that neither of her two children be portrayed in the series.)
Ms. Cruz said she watched hundreds of hours of tape of Ms. Versace to master her Italian accent and mannerisms, and that her portrayal was intended to be one of “respect and love.”
And she said that early last week, Ms. Versace sent her flowers and that the two have been texting like middle-schoolers.
As for Mr. Ramirez, he found access to his character through compassion for the intense scrutiny Mr. Versace faced post-mortem. Mr. Versace “was killed twice,” he said. “He was killed physically, and he was killed so to speak morally and socially.”
The show’s main accomplishment, according to Mr. Ramirez? “I think it’s the redemption of Gianni Versace.”