A mild case
Chris Pine's standout performance lifts an otherwise tepid 'I Am the Night'
Sooner or later, everyone in Hollywood comes down with an acute case of the Black Dahlias. Stuck in traffic as the day's waning light casts the shadow of a palm tree across some old stucco and — bang! — the noir allure just ropes them in, with its grisly murders, corrupt cops, determined sleuths, alcoholism, dames. Sometimes the only cure is to make one's own version of an L.A. noir film — or, in 2019, a limited event series.
So it is that producer/director Patty Jenkins' "I Am the Night," a moody and fleetingly artful six-parter premiering Monday on TNT, reaches for some new sensibilities within this nearly depleted genre. But the story, in synopsis at least, feels the same: A troubled girl runs away to Los Angeles in search of her real parents, meets a drug-addicted hack journalist (who nurses a 25-year obsession for the town's most notorious unsolved murder), and gets herself in deep trouble.
Less thrilling than it is ruminative and roundabout, "I Am the Night" is loosely based on ("inspired by") the life story of the late Fauna Hodel, who, through a series of bizarre events, discovered that her father was George Hill Hodel, a Los Angeles physician who remains on a long list of suspects in the "Black Dahlia" murder of 1947, in which the body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot, cut in half at the waist.
Interest in George Hodel's alleged involvement in the murder grew after he died in 1999 and his son, an LAPD detective, accused him of the murders of Short and several other victims. The Black Dahlia case is still unsolved, partly because more than 500 people reportedly confessed to it over the decades. (Half of them screenwriters, I'd bet.)
Jenkins, whose television work includes directing episodes of AMC's "The Killing" and, more popularly, 2017's hit "Wonder Woman" movie (and its forthcoming sequel), is aiming to look past the basic retro-noir mystery tale. In one notable way, Jenkins comes at the story with the determined viewpoint that women are not merely beautiful victims and bit players. Too often, the noir genre is a heavy pour of machismo.
Drawing from Fauna Hodel's autobiography ("One Day She'll Darken"), the story starts in Sparks, Nevada, in 1965, where 16-year-old Pat (India Eisley) has been raised by a former nightclub singer, Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), to believe she is the result of a mixed-race love affair. Taunted at school for a perceived lack of racial authenticity, Pat discovers that Jimmy Lee has been lying to her, protecting the girl from a much more troubling and potentially dangerous truth. Despite Jimmy Lee's warnings, Pat acts on the discovery of a hidden birth certificate and sets off for L.A. in search of answers.
"I Am the Night's" parallel story line more closely resembles the noir style and action that viewers might want, with a rambunctiously complex, all-in performance from film actor Chris Pine, as Jay Singletary, a newspaper stringer reduced to taking unseemly paparazzo assignments, chasing starlets and sneaking into morgues — and getting his clock regularly cleaned by aggressive cops. When Jay's not working, he's on a drinking and drug-snorting binge.
Thanks to the forgiving nature of the noir genre's reliance on old-fashioned expository dialogue (for which the series' writers don't always demonstrate the sharpest ear), we learn that Jay was once a promising young newspaperman, until he went too far trying to solve the Black Dahlia case. After traumatic service as a combat Marine in the Korean War, he's spent another decade getting to the bottom of liquor bottles and the end of his rope, literally considering suicide in his worst moments.
It takes a few episodes for Pat/Fauna and Jay's paths to come together; by the time they do, a crucial amount of plot momentum has been sacrificed for the sake of establishing a creepily suggestive mood. Jenkins clearly wants to deliver on a theme of motherhood and abandonment, but Eisley has difficulty shouldering the weight of Pat/Fauna's story, which just grows weirder instead of more compelling.
When it comes to keeping viewers engaged, Pine carries most of the load, lifting "I Am the Night" almost (but not quite) to the level of a fair fight against such prestige efforts as the latest "True Detective" and last year's "Sharp Objects." The show it most recalls, however, is "Aquarius," an overlooked NBC mystery drama from 2015 that starred David Duchovny as police detective who encounters an ad hoc hippie commune that became the Manson family.
As sicko-psycho bad guys go, George Hodel (underwhelmingly played by Jefferson Mays) pales next to more worthy film-and-TV killers who also harbored strange preoccupations with the female form (George prefers their insides to their outsides). By the time the doctor is confronted by Pat/Fauna and Jay, "I Am the Night" has wandered in circles, trying to contextualize the mid-'60s civil rights scene and the rampant racism in the city's police force. There's even a cameo appearance by the Watts riots.
Fans of L.A. noir may feel underserved by "I Am the Night," yet they can spend a few episodes at least enjoying the vibe and the view. As with all L.A. stories, the view counts for something.
"I Am the Night"
The show premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on TNT and continues weekly through March 4.