In 1947, a woman was found murdered in Los Angeles, although “murdered” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for what was done to her: her body was cut in half at the waist, and the sensational crime was never solved, though the tabloid-crime media of the time did bestow a nickname on her: The Black Dahlia.
The case is one of the most high-profile, national crime stories of the 20th century, and has been the subject of many books and films, most notably James Ellroy’s 1987 novel ‘The Black Dahlia’ and Brian De Palma’s 2006 adaptation, all of which entertained countless theories on what really happened. I Am the Night, beginning its six-episode run Sunday night on TNT, takes one such theory and treats it as gospel, and interestingly pushes the Dahlia to the margins while bringing a marginal figure in the story to the center.
Patty (the very striking India Eisley) is a teenager with light skin growing up in a black neighborhood just outside Reno, Nevada in 1965, and she does not have it easy: she has never met her father, who she’s been told was white, she has been raised by a very caring, if slightly boozy, black mother, and she doesn’t quite fit in, either with the white kids or the black kids. An argument with her mother leads to the discovery that she was adopted, that her real name is Fauna Hodel, and that her mother was from a wealthy family in Los Angeles. Fauna is on the next bus to try and find her mother, or her grandfather George Hodel, a prominent doctor.
Meanwhile, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine, Star Trek, Wonder Woman), a Marine veteran of the Korean War turned bottom-feeding journalist, takes an assignment to look into the case of a woman found decapitated in Los Angeles. He soon sees a similarity to the case that ruined his once-promising career and nearly sunk the L.A. Times back in the 1940s -- a case that involved Dr. George Hodel.
To say more would be to spoil the story, which is cleverly structured to weave fact with speculation and outright invention, and real people with made-up characters. The period Los Angeles setting is a feast for the eyes, though Patty Jenkins, who directed the first two episodes, wisely doesn’t go overboard with the 1965 needle drops or outfits - it’s just enough to cast the necessary spell.
Executive Producer Jenkins, whose husband Sam Sheridan wrote all six episodes and served as show runner, worked with Pine when she directed Wonder Woman, and that history serves both well here: Singletary’s acerbic humor and jaded point of view are in the same tradition as Pine’s takes on Captain Kirk and Steve Trevor, but here he gets to stretch into less familiar territory depicting Singletary’s PTSD and the heroin habit he brought home from the war, and turns in some of his best work to date.
Eisley, not having starred in any sci-fi or superhero blockbusters, is less familiar to me, but she is the center of the story and acquits herself well. There is a basic uncertainty at the heart of the character -- her search for her own identity animates the whole story -- and Eisley communicates the inner turmoil as Fauna takes on each new piece of information and tries to process it, balancing her overarching determination to find out the truth with her growing fear of what might happen if she actually succeeds. She is smart enough to be careful, she is not naive -- growing up black in 1965 America has seen to that -- but she is still in way over her head and Eisley never lets us forget it.
The way things are going with TV in general -- too many shows with too many episodes and not enough time to watch them -- a six-episode series with a clear end is refreshing, and this one kept me interested throughout. It’s not too tough to see where things are generally headed, but the small details and specific characterizations keep it compelling, even if you think you’ve figured out the mystery.
New episodes of I Am the Night premiere at 9pm ET Sunday 1/28 on TNT, and Mondays on demand.