The so-called "Black Dahlia" murder, the still-unsolved 1947 homicide of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, has tantalized storytellers and amateur detectives for decades, providing source material for books, movies and TV series. TNT’s I Am the Night, the latest take on the case, takes a little while to reveal its connections, but once it does, it links Short’s murder to a web of killings and other crimes by ultra-rich (and ultra-creepy) physician George Hodel (Jefferson Mays).
But Hodel isn’t the main character of I Am the Night, and his potential involvement in the Black Dahlia murder is merely one of its plot threads. Set in 1965, the miniseries focuses on two characters, one a real person and the other a fictional creation. First, there’s Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), George’s granddaughter, who as the series opens is living under the name Pat in Sparks, Nevada, unaware that she’s the scion of a wealthy, troubled family. Born under disreputable circumstances to George’s daughter Tamar, Fauna was adopted by working-class casino housekeeper Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), who has a penchant for getting drunk and berating her daughter.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, washed-up reporter Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) is barely scraping by taking compromising photos of starlets, and is haunted by his military service in Korea and his inability to prove, years earlier, that George was guilty of improper behavior with Tamar. Jay is a composite of film-noir clichés, with his cocaine habit, his volatile temper and his unending, self-destructive quest for the truth, but Pine gives him a level of mischievous charm that smooths over some of the uneven writing (from series creator Sam Sheridan, who penned five of the six episodes).
Fauna and Jay don’t even interact directly until the third episode, but they’re both after the same thing from the start, once Fauna discovers she’s not Jimmy Lee’s biracial daughter, as she’s been told her entire life. Fauna travels to L.A. to track down her real family while dealing with issues of abandonment and identity, as she’s always believed herself to be black, no matter how light her skin. The show handles its racial issues rather clumsily, especially in later episodes set against the backdrop of the 1965 Watts riots, and Fauna’s dubious African-American heritage turns out not to have much bearing on the story.
Really, Jay himself doesn’t have much bearing on the narrative, either, no matter how charming Pine may be. The reporter serves mostly as a plot device to move Fauna closer to meeting her long-lost family members and discovering their secrets, and to get repeatedly roughed up by corrupt cops in a weak riff on L.A. Confidential. At least Jay takes action, however misguided it may be; Fauna spends a lot of time just standing around, wide-eyed and gawking at the latest horrific development in her sordid story.
Eisley has a kind of wounded vulnerability that works for a character who’s been kicked around by life, but Fauna is so passive that she gets lost in her own story. Some of the supporting players, especially Brooks and Connie Nielsen (as George’s volatile ex-wife), seem to be trying to make up for Eisley’s meekness by giving ridiculously over-the-top performances. Brooks in particular comes off as an absurd parody of a drunken, abusive parent.
Originally titled One Day She’ll Darken (after Fauna Hodel’s autobiography), but eventually presented with a new title and an “inspired by” credit given to Hodel herself, I Am the Night heavily fictionalizes and sensationalizes Fauna’s story, not only by adding in the character of Jay Singletary but also by making George Hodel into a sort of all-powerful bogeyman. It may not be entirely accurate, but it does give the show a menace to focus on and a murder mystery of sorts to solve, which fits in better with the pulp/noir tone that the creators are aiming for.
Those creators include Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who helms the first two episodes and is an executive producer. She sets the tone early, with moody noir lighting and eye-catching period costumes and production design. Jay’s resemblance to classic noir protagonists is likely intentional, meant to evoke certain expectations about the focus of the story that the show can then subvert. But promising a twisty pulp murder mystery and then delivering an adoption melodrama is a frustrating tactic, especially when it’s dragged out over six hour-long episodes that don’t offer much resolution.
Despite George’s constant looming presence, the narrative lacks drive and purpose, and around the midway point of the series it’s still not entirely clear what would constitute a successful outcome for the main characters. The producers may be hoping for an HBO-style mystery sensation along the lines of True Detective or Sharp Objects, but I Am the Night is less stylish and less enticing than those series, and eventually delivers mostly dissatisfying results, for both its fictional characters and their real-life inspirations.
Premiering Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNT, I Am the Night stars Chris Pine, India Eisley, Jefferson Mays, Leland Orser and Connie Nielsen.