There is one very good thing about TNT’s I Am the Night, and that is Chris Pine. Despite paper-thin characterization and hardly any plot to speak of, Pine gives a fully physical performance as a burned-out journalists and former soldier, Jay Singletary, who thinks he’s cracked an important case. Jay is essentially brought back to life as he follows a thread that leads him to the Black Dahlia murder and suspect George Hodel, a famous LA gynecologist whose trial for incest and sexual abuse Jay covered over a decade before. But while Hodel was acquitted and continued to flourish, the coverage ruined Jay’s career. The key to the Hodel story is Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), George’s granddaughter, whose quest to find the truth of her parentage coincides with Jay’s desire to see George (played by Jefferson Mays) pay for his crimes.
As Jay, Pine falls, takes punches, mushes up his face with his hands, is anything but graceful, stumbles often, kicks doors, and slams things on counters. He rolls off of couches, falls out of chairs, and drags his bones from one place to another as a matter of course rather than desire. He’s a familiar kind of character — Jay takes drugs, drinks too much, and is haunted by the faces of the men he’s killed. But Pine’s devotion to Jay’s physicality is what makes the performance stand out. He’s unexpectedly jovial and wonderfully uninhibited in a way that no one else in the series is, making his scenes welcome respites in this otherwise dour tale.
I Am the Night — which comes from Sam Sheridan — is unfortunately not about Jay, it’s about Fauna, and Eisley is given exactly one note to play for the run of the series (five out of the eventual six episodes of this limited series were available for review). Half of the excitement going into this series was the fact that it’s a Wonder Woman reunion for director Patty Jenkins (who directs the first two episodes), Pine, and Connie Nielsen. But that shine fades quickly, as the story can’t make up its mind what it wants to be, ending up mostly as a disappointment for those looking for either a crime thriller or a nuanced personal story. Instead, the series meanders and gives half-baked consideration to what should have been exceptionally compelling material.
Fauna’s (true) story is a strange one. She was given by a rich white family to a black maid in a Las Vegas casino to raise. Her birth certificate claims her father was black, and so she was raised as biracial through the tumultuous 50s and 60s. She’s supposedly close to her adopted mother Jimmie Lee (Golden Brooks), who calls her Pat, but the relationship is never shown as being anything other than antagonistic and borderline abusive. Eventually, the rebellious teen decides to go on a quest to find her birth mother in Los Angeles and discover who her father really is, where she crosses paths with Jay who is still interested in investigating the Hodels.
From here, I Am the Night puts Fauna in a maze of Hollywood horror, and yet the stakes never feel very high. The mysteries within the series are largely the result of people being purposefully unwilling to speak plainly, despite Fauna repeating her questions over and over again in a twangy accent. Perhaps out of reverence for the real Fauna, her portrayal has been flattened to nothing more than big-eyed stares and frowning confusion, which doesn’t make for a very engaging lead (I don’t really blame Eisley though; she isn’t given much to do except pout and cower). It’s all the more disappointing when compared with Pine’s manic movements on the periphery of the story, but his character also falls into a repetitive narrative rut, where each episode more or less retreads the same beats.
Where is it all heading? I Am the Night makes it clear from the very start that George Hodel is the most likely suspect as the Black Dahlia’s killer, but we also know that he’s never caught. The show remains interested in that crime, and might have been more successful focusing on it instead of this murder-adjacent plot two decades later. Even when its mysteries are revealed, like the truth of Fauna’s mother Tamar, nothing interesting comes of it. In the end, when it needs to make a move, it retreats. I Am the Night shows all of its cards from the start and doesn’t really give much of a reason to stick around to watch them being played.
Except, that is, for Pine, who really does his best to keep things interesting. He makes Jay into a fascinating figure, and it’s a shame we don’t spend more time with him. But the series consistently hides its best assets; we don’t spend enough time with the hugely creepy George Hodel, either, or explore any of Fauna’s inner life or what she must have been feeling to have her world so totally upended in such a short amount of time. The important racial component of this story is shallow and stereotyped, and the connections to the crimes of George Hodel are faintly rendered. I Am the Night paints a decent portrait of mid-century L.A. noir, but it mistakes darkness with depth, treating anything real or substantive with coy hesitation. Fauna’s journey is to find out who she is — I Am the Night could have used more of that same introspection.
Rating: ★★ (But Pine gets 5 stars for effort)
I Am the Night premieres Monday, January 28th on TNT.