The Season Finales of “American Crime Story” and “X-Files” Play to Strengths and Weaknesses

By | March 22, 2018

Two very different series had their season finales last night (possibly series finale in “The X-Files” case), and even if both were inconsistent experiences, it was quite surprising which show ultimately had the stronger season…

American Crime Story: The Assasination of Gianni Versace…There could’ve been no clearer example of this series strengths and weaknesses than the season finale. It’s clearly been made with passion, first-rate production values, and talent to burn, but the elaborate staging (the series opened with the main event and moved backwards through spree-killer Andrew Cunanan’s crimes and eventually early life) would’ve been clever had it not been necessary to disguise this season’s biggest weakness: its main cast and characters.

The Versace family (Ricky Martin as Gianni’s long-time partner, Edgar Ramirez as Versace, and Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace) are overwrought, one-dimensional bores seemingly teleported in from a foreign-language soap opera. [My eyes were set to “roll” position every time Ramirez’s Versace started babbling about “the beauty of life…life is beautiful, life is…life” and not much else.] It also became apparent that film-stars Ramirez and Cruz weren’t available for a heavy-TV filming schedule, as they disappear for several episodes at a time–they’re only in half the season, and usually for only a handful of scenes per episode. That’s the only logical explanation unless the cinematographer was just really in love with back-side tracking shots of Cruz’s Donatella walking through hallways (a tactic to deploy a body-double).

So other than watching three Spanish actors play Italians, there just wasn’t much to this season other than Darren Criss’s Andrew Cunanan, which left me a little less impressed than other reviewers. For the first half of the season, Criss plays Cunanan like Chris Kattan channeling Ted Bundy, a splashy, over-the-top serial killer whose dead-eyed stares seem almost cartoonish. The third and fourth episodes, where Criss stalks around the edges of a scene before killing someone were especially unconvincing. By the time the series deepens its portrayal of Cunanan, it feels “too little, too late,” as the show’s essentially asking us to identify with someone painted as a fame-starved monster desperate to use anyone in his orbit. [Although it does provide a cautionary tale of avoiding pathologically bland Minnesotans.]

Worse, the series can’t quite figure out what it’s trying to say about Cunanan–the haunting final image of his plain, anonymous grave seems to be carrying a message that centering an entire season around him directly contradicts. If all Cunanan wanted was to be famous, isn’t the series kind-of giving that to him by tacitly admitting he’s more interesting than his victims? And even though the series would like to draw larger parallels to living closeted in a homophobic society, it also keeps insisting Cunanan’s problems had little to do with homophobia and more to do with his refusal to do anything but use people. It’s a show worth watching, but you’ll more likely remember side-characters like the great Judith Light as the widow of Andrew’s most tragically charitable victim, Finn Wittrock as Naval officer Jeff Trail struggling through a homophobic military, and especially Jon Jon Briones–blowing the doors off his first screen role as Andrew’s Filipino con artist father. Grade for Season: B-…Grade for Season Finale: B

The X-Files…Despite a lousy season premiere (and 2016’s reboot season), “The X-Files” relaunch has officially come into its own and justified its existence with several strong episodes in this 11th season. Although I never watched the first 9 seasons, it’s relatively easy to figure out what’s going on, and that’s partly because “The X-Files” is the only series I’ve ever watched that is better at self-contained episodes than serialized arcs. The overall mythology seems cooked up by a meth-addled Breitbart reporter taking ideas from Reddit nuts and throwing them at the wall: for just one example, in the opening season premiere montage we’re supposed to believe the U.S. government–or something–has been using Area 51’s 1947 crashed alien technology to become more technologically advanced than most people realize, but that they also need to fake the moon landing…for some reason. The season premiere and some of the finale revolve around a plot so filled with conspiracy-buzzwords (the Cigarette Smoking Man is somehow using alien DNA to cull the population while a rival group is ready to colonize space and leave Earth behind, all of them needing a telepathic kid created with the aid of alien DNA, and using some shady military contractor based in Russia–just so the show can namecheck the Ruskies) you might get dumber trying to decipher it all, but the season finale saves itself by grounding at least some of the hokum in the genuine feelings we have David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully, and their search for their world-saving offspring William.

Even though I’m a novice to the series, these two are able to conjure magic through a Duchovny-throwaway joke here, and an Anderson side-eye there. “Looks and smirks” aren’t things that usually sell a series, but these two show just how much personality most TV shows (and their stars) are missing. Duchovny’s Mulder (one of the greatest detectives since Sherlock Holmes) has a hang-dog charm towards the cases he’s solving, almost as if it’s a shame to really solve them. And Anderson is able to sell even the most ridiculous scenes with the genuine, maternal panic she feels for her son William.

Plus, many of the stand-alone episodes were terrific, ranging from genuinely scary (“Familiar”) to hilarious (“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”) to exciting (“Rm9sbG93ZXJz”). Each one seems to contain a real sense of connection to these two great central characters as they navigate seemingly banal topics like technological anxiety, lost connections, or getting older. By having two older, rueful characters at its center, the show unexpectedly stumbles into something deeper than what “Versace” painfully strives for, that sense of quiet thoughtfulness and reflection sets this series apart from most broadcast series, drama or otherwise. Season Finale: B…Season Overall: A-

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