I Am the Night

One of the hallmarks of Peak TV – the era in which we live where there’s just so much good TV, too much for any one person to watch – is the presence of people you typically only associate with the big screen. Certainly, some of the agreed-upon best TV shows of the 21st century are able to tell longer-form stories than any film, or even series of films, could. But shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and others also stand out either because they looked as impressive as films or because they featured people from the world of film on a small screen, no longer thought of as slumming it.

Of course, the downside of the migration of cinematic talent to the world of TV is that it’s no longer automatically remarkable to see an A-list movie star on a TV show, or a big-name director behind the camera of such a show. Timing, as they say, is everything, and timing is part of what makes the TNT limited series I Am the Night something of a letdown. It ought to be a big deal — the director and one of the stars of last year’s zeitgeist-y superhero film Wonder Woman have reunited for a period-piece crime drama that incorporates both fictionalized elements as well as the infamous Black Dahlia Killer to tell the story of a young woman whose past is far more sordid than even she realized. Instead, I Am the Night is a show that feels out of place in 2019.

I Am the Night Feels Late to the Game

I Am the Night runs for just six episodes (the finale runs next week), which should be a point in its favor. Too often, even limited TV series feel beholden to running for at least 10 episodes, if not 13, dragging out a story that would fit in half that length. Yet as much as this show should work, in its impressive depiction of Los Angeles at a fraught time in recent American history, it falters in part because it feels like I Am the Night would have been best served at the front end, not the tail end, of the recent crime-drama revolution on the small screen.

Even with Chris Pine as the big name among the cast, and Patty Jenkins as the director of the show’s first two episodes, I Am the Night is remarkably lacking in its own identity. The show often calls to mind other crime dramas, from the big or small screen, and is unable to shake the sense that it’s late to the party, and coming from the wrong network. The obvious corollary is True Detective, which kickstarted the crime-drama renaissance with its A-List cast and director for its breakout first season. Coincidentally, True Detective has returned for its third season this year; it too features a recognizable and renowned movie actor as its lead, it too jumps around in time, and it too features baroque, brutally violent murders. That last part is the rub. True Detective is on HBO, where a show can be as R-rated as it wants; while Pine and the rest of the cast of I Am the Night can say “shit” to their hearts’ content on TNT, this show’s not able to go above a PG-13, and it clearly needs to be more adult in its depiction of frank violence.

As noted in the opening credits, I Am the Night is “inspired by the life” of a woman named Fauna Hodel. When we first meet Fauna (India Eisley), she’s a naïve and innocent teenager growing up in Reno, Nevada, living under the presumption that she’s mixed-race, with an absent white father and a black mother (Golden Brooks). (Spoilers for history incoming.) Soon, Fauna is shocked to learn that she’s the granddaughter of George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a famed Los Angeles doctor who’s so respected in the community that he works with movie stars and mobsters alike. After Hodel enigmatically invites her to Los Angeles during a brief phone call, Fauna heads to LA despite her adoptive mother’s angry pleas to keep her at home.

Fauna’s side of things is one half of the show; the other half is taken up by Pine, playing Jay Singletary, a dogged journalist who’s trying to reclaim an ounce of respect after a long-ago case he tried to crack that got him sued for libel. Singletary is soon given a murder case to write about that’s as gruesome as the one that ruined his career – the infamous Black Dahlia murder. With the show only being six episodes long, it’s not terribly shocking to learn that Fauna and Jay, whose stories run parallel to each other for a little while, will eventually meet up and find that they can each help the other one out.

A Character Actor in a Movie-Star Frame

If there’s any draw to I Am the Night, it’s Pine himself, playing a fictionalized character with all sorts of pent-up energy and latent, brimming resentment at the cloistered societal structures that screwed him over back in the late 1940s. Pine’s performance sometimes calls to mind that of a caged animal, in a pleasantly surprising way. Jay is a fascinating amalgam of journalist, soldier, and madman, and Pine brings it to life fantastically well, suggesting himself to be a character actor in a movie star’s body.

This isn’t technically his first transition to TV after becoming a name actor – he appeared in the Wet Hot American Summer revival on Netflix. Yet it’s to the show’s credit that Pine has the most to work with here, in terms of emotional intensity. As Matthew McConaughey delivered the performance of a lifetime with True Detective’s first season, so too does Pine feel like he’s going for broke here. Unfortunately, the show around him is so aggressively straightforward, average, and methodical to a fault.

It’s painfully evident from the early going that there are larger forces at work in Fauna’s life. (This is a case where Google and Wikipedia will not be your friend, because they’ll only serve to reveal things about the lives of Fauna and George Hodel that the show treats as mind-blowing surprises. A Google search will also clue you in to exactly how “inspired” the show is.) Though Eisley is an appropriately innocent-looking actress, Fauna’s naivete in the first half of the series, coupled with Jay’s single-minded attempt to clear his name after more than a decade of trouble, doesn’t add up to anything particularly exciting.

A PG-13 Show That Should Be R

Watching the first few episodes, specifically, is a bit perplexing once you know who’s behind the camera. Patty Jenkins’ breakout film was the gritty, real-life story of Aileen Wuornos, captured in the phenomenally acted Monster, but she then worked a fair bit on the small screen before her second feature, Wonder Woman. (Jenkins was famously set to direct the Thor sequel that became The Dark World, before she left the project. Fair to say she made the right decision there.) So in between Monster and Wonder Woman, Jenkins directed a handful of episodes of shows ranging from Arrested Development to Entourage to The Killing, for which she got an Emmy nomination. On one hand, it’s fair to say that I Am the Night looks the part from the opening — it’s both very clear that this show is set in the 1960s, and it never leans too hard on period dressing to impress.

But even the depictions of George Hodel’s life — the show was able to film at the real doctor’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed mansion, which feels like a genuine coup — feel neutered. We hear of his epic, orgiastic parties, and get brief glimpses that call to mind the Grand Guignol designs of the first season of True Detective or something like the final, hallucinatory sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with people wearing animal masks. It’s perhaps unfair to think of these shows and films when watching I Am the Night, but in every episode, there’s a distinct and unerring sense that it’s trapped by the fact that other pop culture got to this material, in some way, first.

When Patty Jenkins made Wonder Woman, it felt like a long-overdue revelation to fans around the world. It was the kind of film that not only earned its fandom, but made people legitimately curious to see what Jenkins and her cast would do next. While it’s encouraging to see Jenkins (and Chris Pine) will both return for the Wonder Woman sequel next year, their in-between project I Am the Night feels like a poor use of both of their talents. Pine proves here what he’s been proving, subtly, for a while: he’s the best of the modern Chrises. But he’s so good here that you wish the rest of the show (even Jenkins) could measure up.

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