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This side of Jack the Ripper, there aren’t many true crime sagas that have been investigated as frequently on the big and small screen as the so-called Black Dahlia murder that shook Los Angeles in 1947. If you’re going to try to approach the case anew, you’d better have a good angle or clear-headed perspective.
TNT’s Black Dahlia-adjacent limited series I Am the Night has some things going for it, including a throwback star performance from Chris Pine, reuniting with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, but the thing it most clearly lacks is that clear-headed perspective. After watching five of its six hours, I can’t tell you whose story I Am the Night thinks it is, nor the mystery it thinks it’s unfolding. And despite its standout elements, I look to that last unseen episode without any sense of what arcs the show wants to resolve, or what arcs I’m invested in.
Air date: Jan 28, 2019
I Am the Night was created by Sam Sheridan, and after being announced by TNT — really into the period murder mystery game after The Alienist — as One Day She’ll Darken, the title of Fauna Hodel’s memoir, it now claims only to be “inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel.” It’s a telling downgrade because I Am the Night — a far less vivid title, especially when the original title is still referenced in the premiere — definitely lacks the focus to really be the story of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), who discovers in 1965, at the age of 16, that her mother (Golden Brooks, elevating every scene she’s in) has lied about her past, that she was adopted under fraught circumstances and that her biological grandfather, George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), is a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles.
George Hodel is also much more than that: an accused abortionist, a deranged collector of modern art and a man with enough powerful connections to crush anybody who tries to report the truth about him. Disgraced journalist Jay Singletary (Pine), still skittish and haunted from his service in Korea, learned this the hard way. After having his career destroyed by Hodel once, he begins poking around again after a high-profile homicide, starting to put together pieces that point toward Hodel possibly being the Black Dahlia killer. Jay becomes embroiled in one of the least engaging takes on LAPD corruption I’ve ever seen, as the show simultaneously tries to dodge comparisons to James Ellroy — they’re unavoidable and lead only to disappointment — and the reality that it was George Hodel’s son, a cop himself and a figure never mentioned here, who actually leveled the Black Dahlia accusations.
The structure of the narrative and the creation of the Singletary character effectively render Fauna a passive participant in both the series and in her own life. She’s driven by a desire to belong, and many of the series’ more provocative ideas relate to Fauna grappling with her identity as a biracial woman equally capable of passing for white and being persecuted as black. Maybe if Sheridan were more connected to this as the hook of the story, other elements, particularly the depiction of race relations in Los Angeles on the eve of the Watts Riots, would be more convincing. Unfortunately, this is merely inspired by Fauna’s life and not really about it. Take Jay out of the story and I don’t think Fauna ends up going anywhere or doing anything. That’s bad protagonist-ing.
Eisley is lovely, but placid and reactive. Even when Fauna’s playing detective, there’s nothing inquisitive in the character, no intensity in the performance and none of the writers nor directors — Victoria Mahoney and Carl Franklin follow Jenkins — quite knows what to do with her. This makes it easy to be distracted when she shares scenes with the fiery Brooks, the compellingly odd Jefferson or the perplexingly odd Connie Nielsen, who, as her kinda ex-step-grandmother, joins Eisely in a series of wandering accents unmotivated by anything in the script. Additional distraction will be experienced by viewers who watched the Franco Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet in high school, because in certain lighting and at certain angles, Eisley’s resemblance to mother Olivia Hussey is eerie.
Fauna’s early meandering around Los Angeles’ underbelly can barely be justified and it takes a long time before she and Jay share screentime together. Once he arrives, opportunistically white knighting his way into Fauna’s life — he’s constantly saving her, paying her way places and withholding information that he gets to first — the show can’t decide how it wants to treat the relationship between this real person and a muckraking composite. Jay feels like a fictional character, specifically the sort of snarky, wounded investigator Paul Newman might have played in the ’60s, the type of man who wanders into fights face-first not out of heroism, but as self-flagellation. In this capacity, Pine is exceptional — raw, broken and yet very funny. Whether he forces the story to become his by virtue of his A-list status and charisma, because Eisley is too meek to command the frame or because the writers’ interest in Fauna is fickle, remains open to debate.
While it may sound like damning with faint praise, the other thing I Am the Night does extremely well is capture L.A. architecture at its most eclectic, from rundown art deco apartment complexes to dingy, pleather-lined luncheonettes to still-existing landmarks like the King Eddy Saloon and Chili Johns. Best of all, the I Am the Night team was able to shoot at George Hodel’s actual residence, Los Feliz’s Sowden House, a stunning Mayan Revival designed by Lloyd Wright [not father Frank, as was previously stated]. With its copper gates and looming maw of a stonework entrance, earning it the nickname “The Jaws House,” it’s the centerpiece of the opening credits, several of the series’ most memorable scenes.
If you’re of the mind that locations can be characters, Sowden House is another character drawing attention from a narrative that never knows what its most enticing attributes actually are. Is I Am the Night a dead-ended — sorry, but nobody’s going down for the Black Dahlia killing here — thriller about a cold case murder investigation, a thinly developed story of a young woman’s search to find herself or just a tony episode of House Hunters? Seems like the kind of thing that needed to be decided earlier.
Cast: Chris Pine, India Eisley, Jefferson Mays, Leland Orser, Connie Nielsen,, Justin Cornwell, Golden Brooks
Creator: Sam Sheridan
Directors: Patty Jenkins, Victoria Mahoney, Carl Franklin
Premieres Monday, Jan. 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNT.
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