Three very different crime series are early into their seasons, but so far it’s become pretty clear which one is most worth watching…
American Crime Story Season 2: The Assassination of Gianni Versace…In season one of “American Crime Story,” I resisted watching (at first) largely because I had no interest at all in rehasing the O.J. Simpson trial, but once I finally did I discovered one of the best TV shows of 2016. “Versace” is almost the exact opposite in that I was excited to learn more about a murder I actually wasn’t familiar with beforehand (serial killer Andrew Cunanan murdered several men before gunning down legendary fashion designer Versace right outside his home), but each of the first three episodes has proved to be more than a little disappointing. The strongest section of the series so far has been the first few minutes of the third episode in which the great Judith Light (playing the wife of a closeted Chicago real estate tycoon Cunanan targeted) knows something is wrong the day she finds her husband’s body, and then we see a few flashbacks of their life together before Cunanan arrives.
The key phrase in that last sentence is before Cunanan arrives and that’s when we’re “treated” to another of Darren Criss’s over-acting seminars, as his Cunanan is such a transparent, sour psychopath you keep wondering why all these people are fooled by him. [After said real estate tycoon shows him a sketch of a tall building he wants to build, Cunanan belittles it before torturing the man, killing him, and even burning his sketches. What an asshole.] It’s a little like watching Chris Kattan attempt to play Ted Bundy, and you may find yourself longing for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s masterfully nuanced, ambiguous work as O.J. Simpson. And the rest of the supporting cast–Edgar Ramirez as Versace, Ricky Martin as his long-time boyfriend, and Penelope Cruz as his infamous sister Donatella Versace–never really pop the way season one was loaded with outstanding work by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney Vance, Nathan Lane, even John Travolta as the vain-glorious Robert Shapiro, etc. No matter how you look at it, this just seems like a regression for Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “Nip/Tuck,” “American Horror Story”) back to his usual over-the-top, gaudier instincts. Grade: C+
The Alienist…If “Assassination” is bathed in Miami’s baroque-meets-hot pink luridness and over-the-top killers, then “Alienist” might benefit from a little more pizzazz. The first two episodes are so stolid, earnest, and dull that you may wonder what’s so special about this flatly-acted TNT procedural other than its unusual setting: 1896 New York, when a killer is on the loose but before the NYPD (then little more than a gang of “cops”) had no idea how to deal with Jack-the-Ripper-style murders. For most scenes, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl are their usual bland selves, and even the normally wide-awake Dakota Fanning appears to be sleepwalking through her role as the first woman in the New York police department (as the secretary to Teddy Roosevelt–then NYPD commissioner). Some beautiful scenery and occasional bits of intrigue (like the gorgeous Q’orianka Kilcher as Bruhl’s mysterious employee and possible love interest, or Ted Levine floating the idea that the rich can get away with murder because they fund the under-funded police department) can’t make up for a sleepy take on this material so far. Grade: C+
Counterpart…What if you could meet an alternate version of yourself? A version of you that one event had set on an entirely different path? J.K. Simmons’s low-level bureaucrat gets to find out that answer when the other world’s version of him (a top-level spy) comes crashing into his muted, somewhat-depressing existence showing him what would’ve happened if he’d turned right instead of left. It’s a fascinating premise and although some may be thrown by “Counterpart”‘s quieter, moodier sense of tension (owed in large part to the dour German setting, as this is a Berlin still divided by cold war walls), when it wants to rev up the action, the sequences are exhilarating (usually provided by Sara Serraiocco’s assassin). True, a show about an older man’s choices and the breathing regrets that manifest themselves from that won’t be everyone’s favorite, but I hope many find it as fascinating as I do. Two episodes in, it’s inspired real debate as to which version of Simmons’s character you’d actually want to be and exactly which one has made the right choices. Grade: A-