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The Assassination of Gianni Versace and I, Tonya Interrogate a Moral Gray Zone

9 minute read

The new FX series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story has a famous fashion designer in its title–but the show is much more interested in his killer. Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), before he goes to kill Versace in Miami in 1997, spends his young life in pursuit of status and material wealth. He’s fascinated by opera–or at least claims to be to meet rich men–and the association fits: the form’s unironically bold emotions seem to suit Cunanan’s roiling inner life, and its lavish stagings are a reminder of all he wants but can’t access when the curtain falls.

Versace wants to be an opera too. The show, cribbing from recent-enough history to build a narrative of increasingly high dudgeon, is rigorous about its devotion to aesthetic and to its big ideas about culture and society. Along with the new movie I, Tonya, it’s among a recent wave of entertainment that repurposes the half-forgotten scandals of the 1990s into morally righteous art. Even when the result falls flat–which it often does–the impulse to create it makes sense: at a moment when offscreen life feels particularly unsettled, the media scandals of two decades ago are as suitably perverse a place as any to try to find something clear and certain.

There’s plenty of certitude in Versace, which is unabashed about underlining its theses over and over. One of these is the idea that a borderline-malicious lack of interest in gay men on the part of the police led them to miss out on apprehending Cunanan before he made his appointment with the doomed Versace. But the show’s bigger point is that the concept of the closet is a sickness that hurt Cunanan and hurts our culture on every level. Between their separate story lines, Cunanan and Versace (Édgar Ramírez) take a sort of Forrest Gump tour through every milestone for the gay community in the 1990s–coming out, the AIDS crisis, high society, crystal meth and “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

All of that could be argued to be part of the saga, but how much of it is really part of this particular story? The military policy on gays, for instance, arises in a lengthy digression about a gay naval officer (Finn Wittrock) who falls under Cunanan’s sway. Elsewhere, another victim (Mike Farrell) is imagined as a closeted fellow besotted with Cunanan even as he hates his own gay impulses. We do not know whether this victim knew Cunanan in real life, or what the nature of the association was. Choosing to make the victim a heartsick, tragically closeted man is the easy choice in order to garner sympathy from an audience that’s come a long way–though hardly all the way–on the issue of gay rights. Sure, people in the 1990s (as now) withered away in the closet–but everyone Cunanan encounters seems burdened by their urges. The fact that Cunanan tends to see the world according to his own strict-if-warped moral code becomes less character trait than understandable way of dealing with the world around him. After all, everyone he meets seems punishingly aware of their own shortcomings. But what a shame: these men were already murder victims. Must this series force them to play the victim in life too?

Meanwhile, Versace lives his life, unaware of the creature coming his way. His sections of the story are stronger: Versace is just a man, in thrall of pleasure but just about the only person onscreen who is not toxically addicted to it. (That he’s portrayed so evenhandedly suggests fealty to the Versace name, or a minor miracle.) The story is tragic, certainly, but it also can be read as a lurid one-liner: monster kills star, motive unknown. Morals suggest themselves in the spaces between what is known, but airing them at great length seems a disservice to the story we actually have.

Of course, the true-crime genre–which often speculates about the unknowns in cases like Cunanan’s–is nothing new. But there’s a special fascination with a story of this particular timing, one that’s old enough to be history but recent enough to allow us to feel shocked at just how much has changed. Pop culture has always worked on a 20-year nostalgia cycle; here, that seems in part motivated by the degree to which the audience can give itself a nod of approval–we’re much more enlightened now than they were not so long ago. Things really were simpler then, and retro entertainment like Versace gives us the double comfort of understanding that we’ve got it all figured out now and escapism from our growing existential fears that we don’t.

What made The People v. O.J. Simpson, the previous installment in producer Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story franchise, work was the effortlessness with which it found resonance between Simpson’s case and our lives in the present. That story’s elements of class, race, gender and celebrity needed no massaging to fit into a narrative urgently relevant to our lives in the 2010s. It succeeded because the details of that trial are so widely known as to make excavating the real figures from behind the headlines possible, and endlessly interesting.

Cunanan, a shadowy figure even to journalists who’ve tried to understand his story, is knottier, and less easily understood. Reducing him to a morality-play story of a boy warped by his secrets is unsatisfying. It’s enough to make it relevant to an empathetic contemporary audience, but it’s not enough for a drama that uses the names and personae of people who really lived.

There’s a similarly glum lack of discovery or novelty to I, Tonya, which seems somehow a greater missed opportunity. The drama around the 1994 Winter Olympics–before which figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped by men hired by rival Tonya Harding’s husband and bodyguard–genuinely was rooted in archetypes. Kerrigan was perceived as a beautiful and haughty ice princess, while hardscrabble Harding, an ace with an axel, never got her respect. It would seem like a story ripe for unpacking, delving into what wounds the two took away from their meeting: Harding, punished because she failed to conform, and Kerrigan, punished perhaps more harshly because she did.

Instead, Kerrigan figures into the story only as an object of scorn, while the film wastes much of its running time mocking Harding (Margot Robbie)–gawping at her wide stance when she sits, smoking cigarettes at the rink, suffering through relentless domestic abuse. Then, grasping blindly for a takeaway, the film decides that she was the victim of the media’s cruelty all along. “You’re all my attackers too,” she says directly to the camera. It’s hard to deny that Harding was a national curiosity, but the film’s decision to position itself as her defender only after reveling in the abuse she suffered is a nervy one, and one the film can’t sustain. It collapses under the weight of its own self-regard, too proud of having reclaimed Harding’s narrative to give her a character.

Cunanan and Harding were two of the defining sensations of the 1990s, a peacetime decade during which tabloid stories colonized the front page. That neither were, or are, widely understood comes with the territory. And while FX’s Simpson series proved there’s room for real and thoughtful exploration of the people behind the boldfaced names, resonance can’t be forced. Reading Cunanan’s warped journey through America as tragically consequent to the gay experience, rather than the random actions of a psychopath, flatters an audience that feels sympathetically toward gay people. And reading Harding’s story as Real Housewives–level exaggerated but off-limits for real irony flatters an audience that likes edge, but not too much.

Part of what makes the real stories interesting is the ways in which their details exist in a moral gray zone: we’ll never know what pushed Cunanan, or if he could have been somehow saved. And the debate about Harding’s culpability, among those genuinely interested in the facts of her case, could go on for decades more. For now, I, Tonya seems to have settled the debate among casual fans: Harding is enjoying a media renaissance as the subject of sympathetic interviews, and has announced a return to the rink. “Tonya was the victim” may be less chewily satisfying than really digging into her story, just as FX’s Cunanan will never fascinate in the way the real one, with the contradictions and silences in his story, has for decades. But which one–the comfortingly safe interpretation or the violent, odd, real one–is likelier to sell tickets? A good opera demands a happy ending, even if that happy ending is just the pleasant sensation of an audience’s preconceptions being confirmed.

We’ve gotten these stories back at a moment when seeking deeper meaning in pop culture seems especially urgent. (Who understands the national political scene better than a viewer who spent her 2000s watching reality TV?) And many younger viewers will encounter these tabloid stories for the first time this winter. But in so relentlessly bending the stories to the will of the moment–one in which perceived villains deserve their moment of redemption, or at least bend-over-backward justification–their creators miss out on making something that will last. No matter how assured of their rightness the fictions may be, how long will we be talking about The Assassination of Gianni Versace and I, Tonya? Probably less time than we will spend still intrigued by Andrew Cunanan and Tonya Harding. Their true stories, messy and unresolved, still have the quality of the most meaningfully provocative of art.

This appears in the January 22, 2018 issue of TIME.

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