Vacillating between trying too hard and not hard enough, the premiere episode of TNT’s limited series is salvaged by the potential of a good mystery and Chris Pine’s solid performance.
This recap of the I Am the Night Season 1 Premiere, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
Hollywood has had a long-standing macabre love affair with the Black Dahlia. Every couple of years the infamous unsolved murder of wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short pops up in some form (American Horror Story, De Palma’s 2006 Dahlia namesake mess of muddled Noir, Veronica Lake’s Blue Dahlia.)
The draw in I Am the Night is Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins partnered with executive producer-star Chris Pine. Slightly buried in the promotion of the miniseries is that it is based on the memoirs of real-life figure Fauna Hodel, whose grandfather was at one time a prime suspect in the Dahlia killing.
Set in 1960s Los Angeles, Pine is Jay Singletary, a sketchy low-level journalist who enjoys tacky fashion choices and some light drug use when he isn’t sneaking pictures of stars in compromising positions or conning his way into morgues. Once upon a time, Jay was in the military before becoming a great writer for the L.A. Times, we’re told in some exposition, but something changed his fortunes. Now he finds himself at the literal end of his rope, beaten by freelance LAPD Billis (Yul Vazquez) for his morgue break-in and fresh out of narcotics. He’s in the middle of rigging up his belt to end it all when the phone rings. On the other end is a mysterious woman who tells him that his 1949 story on famed Dr. George Hodel was correct. Jay dives for his clippings, his verve renewed.
The woman is Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), a washed-up Nevada singer who now drinks heavily and curses her mixed race, light-skinned daughter Pat (India Eisley). Beyond her mother’s tyranny, Pat struggles with racism on varying levels, complicated by her relationship with black hospital coworker Lewis, whom she hopes to marry. Jimmy Lee tells her that she is too good for her seemingly sweet beau, though gives no clarification as to why. One night, after a particularly rough fight with Jimmy Lee, Pat smuggles a box of mementos out of her mother’s closet. Inside she discovers a birth certificate for a mixed race child named Fauna Hodel. When she confronts Jimmy Lee with the information the next morning, the visibly shaken woman reveals just how she became a mother.
Jimmy Lee was once married to a minister, but the pair was childless. A chance meeting in the casino bathroom led to the Hodels giving over their 15-year-old daughter Tamar’s mixed race baby to the reverend and his shell-shocked wife. The baby stayed; the reverend didn’t. Delivered in stammering monologue, Brooks hits the right balance of hysteria, regret, and fear in this scene, though it, as with much of the writing and music in this premiere episode, is so obviously screaming NOIR it is almost laughable (I’m looking at you, beach saxophone solo).
As fate would have it, Pat/Fauna just happens to work in the exact hospital she was born, enabling her theft of her birth records. She calls her biological grandfather, Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), revealing her identity. In a creepy, heavy phone breather voice, he invites her to visit him in Los Angeles but warns her not to contact her birth mother as Tamar is mentally troubled. Her reflection on this invitation is cut short when she receives news that Jimmy Lee has died.
Except she hasn’t. The false information is some sort of ruse to invoke pain in Fauna but mostly serves as a convenient plot device to keep Fauna from being too conflicted about hopping a bus for a week-long stay with grandpa. She also fails to notice a dark car with a suspicious man who has been following her throughout the episode. At one stop along the way, she is approached by yet another SUSPICIOUS MAN who chats with her in what I am sure is supposed to be an unsettling way. He mostly comes off as Jack Black taking a swipe at Noir.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Fauna’s grandfather is not responding to her calls, though we are shown him standing in the middle of a Bacchus level party, staring sinisterly when told his granddaughter has called. Fauna attempts to make contact with her step-grandmother Corinne (Connie Nielsen), who warns her that Dr. George Hodel is a bad, bad man. (How did she get this number? Do they list step-grandmother contact information on adoption paperwork?) The young girl is left standing lost and alone at a bus stop in Los Angeles just as her adoptive mother is cluing Singletary into his correct hunch all those years ago.
Pine has always had a sort of smarmy charm, which is why he works so well as James T. Kirk. His performance here plays to that strength as Jay is a broken shell who realizes just how ridiculous his life has become but can’t seem to stop cracking jokes, even when his head is getting smashed in. Having not read the book, I’m intrigued enough about how the narrative will come together to keep watching. That being said, hopefully I Am the Night will find its stride, settling down with the stale tropes, so the whole thing doesn’t end up a mishmash held together by one strong performance.
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