By John Hanlon
“Some stories will eat you alive,” one of the key players in the new TNT series I Am the Night states in the premiere episode. The line refers to a story penned by disgraced reporter Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) that put him on the outs of the publishing industry but the line could also refer to the story of this new six-episode series, which was inspired by the life of Fauna.
The first episode finds sixteen-year old Fauna (India Eisley) struggling with her own sense of identity in the mid-1960s. Fauna, who has lived most of her life with an African-American adopted mother named Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), longs to know who her birth parents were. Knowing that her birth mother was white and her father was black, she sets out to Los Angeles to find out why her birth parents put her up for adoption.
As she embarks on her personal journey, Jay hopes to revitalize his professional career in a separate storyline. He begins to investigate an enigmatic suspect in the Black Dahlia case, hoping to finally close the door on that unsolved mystery.
The details of how these two work together is best left unsaid. The program works best with viewers knowing little about the real-life Fauna Hodel. When the show begins, Fauna doesn’t know who she really is so the viewers are sent along with her. Each surprise to her should be a surprise to the viewer.
It would help though if viewers had a basic knowledge of the Black Dahlia case. The subject of numerous films and programs, Black Dahlia was the nickname given to Elizabeth Short, a woman who was brutally murdered in Los Angeles area in 1947. Her body was found dismembered but the case, which gained national attention, was never solved.
I Am the Night takes place decades after that case but Singletary’s interest in the crime plays a key role in this series.
Patty Jenkins, who previously worked with Chris Pine on Wonder Woman, executive produced this series alongside Pine. She also directed the program’s first two episodes. In the first episode, she sets the tone nicely, crafting a slow-building thriller that has the air (and look) of a film noir. Jay is the down-on-his-luck investigator and Fauna is his unwilling ally, who finds herself in a troubled world of corruption, crime and cynics.
Unlike other crime dramas like The Killing (the pilot of which was also directed by Jenkins), I Am the Night doesn’t immediately grab the viewer’s attention. It lays the stakes out slowly, building a simmering level of tension that doesn’t hit its apex until the finale. As the tension builds, the creepy supporting character George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) gets more and more screen time as he plays a bigger role in both storylines.
The pace gives the production team the opportunity to build the show’s atmosphere and emphasize the racial tensions of that decade.
Fauna, for one, finds itself living between two worlds. She has lighter skin but her adopted mother and her adopted family are African-American, meaning that Fauna is often singled out as not belonging to either world.
This is a show that’s willing to delve into tough issues (such as racism, illegal abortion and corruption) and examine how its characters are defined by the bleak world that surrounds them. Like True Detective before it, I Am the Night is dark, provocative and disturbing but it’s a worthwhile venture that should keep patient fans tuned in.