Notorious cold cases tend to splinter into competing narratives, each containing fragments of an elusive truth—and few have elicited theories as odd as those that surround the lurid 1947 murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, in Los Angeles. Orson Welles, Woody Guthrie, mob boss Bugsy Siegel and LA Times publisher Norman Chandler were all floated as suspects at some point. New books still appear every few years, offering novel takes on the picked-over evidence.
One of the saddest and strangest of these tales, Fauna Hodel’s memoir One Day She’ll Darken, is the inspiration for TNT’s six-episode miniseries I Am the Night, which premieres on Jan. 28. Raised outside Reno, Nev. as Patricia Ann Greenway—a poor, light-skinned biracial girl with a black single mom—Hodel learned as a teen in the mid-1960s that her birth mother was really Tamar Hodel, a young woman from a prominent white Los Angeles family. Writer Sam Sheridan introduces 16-year-old Fauna (India Eisley from The Secret Life of the American Teenager) just before this discovery, when she’s simply trying survive the Civil Rights era as a racial outcast with a strict, alcoholic parent (Girlfriends’ Golden Brooks). We know she’s desperate to fit in because the show’s unsubtle script contrives to let her say so in the opening scene: “I just wanna be normal!”
After stumbling upon her birth certificate and tracking down her grandfather, gynecologist George Hodel (an appropriately creepy Jefferson Mays), Fauna’s search for an identity brings her to L.A. That’s where, following a few episodes’ worth of unnecessary suspense, her quest collides with that of Chris Pine’s hardboiled hero Jay Singletary, a dissipated tabloid crime journalist who got PTSD in Korea after bungling a prestigious LA Times gig in the late ’40s. (“Some stories you can’t tell,” his editor informs a cub reporter, by way of explaining Jay’s downfall. “Some stories will eat you alive.”) That debacle put him on the trail of George, an art connoisseur with friends in high places and possible ties to the Black Dahlia. Like Fauna, Jay is chasing a buried truth that only Tamar can help him unearth. Too bad Tamar is nowhere to be found.
Though it takes place half a century ago, I Am the Night—with its true-crime hook, interest in racial identity and fixation on violence against women—is a story made for the present. And it’s gratifying to see Wonder Woman filmmaker Patty Jenkins, who directed two episodes, reunite with Pine for a TV project that leaves superheroes behind. Every scene looks gorgeous: Jenkins’ neo-noir LA comes alive in neon-lit nightscapes, while the muted hues of Fauna’s hometown recall Norman Rockwell’s less idyllic works. A proto-psychedelic art happening, with bodies writhing behind screens, makes a beguiling set piece. Pine and Brooks have hammy moments, but for the most part, their big performances feel appropriate to the retro context.
If only the writing played to these strengths. True story or not, I Am the Night too often resembles an oversimplified version of the 1974 classic Chinatown, another California noir about abuse of power that parallels family dysfunction with its institutional equivalent. I’ve never been great at predicting plot twists, but I saw many of Sheridan’s coming a few episodes away. And despite dialogue that can be transparent enough to make you suspect someone spiked their coffee with truth serum, the characters are inconsistent. Fauna is steely in one scene and timid in the next. Jay alternates between acts of death-defying heroism and moments of utter helplessness—fluctuations that seem governed more by plot needs than by his past trauma.
The pacing is off, too. Early episodes get bogged down in exposition and digressions. (A lingering flashback to one of George’s bacchanals, paired with a reading from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “A Dream Within a Dream,” had me groaning out loud.) Later installments move too quickly to devote adequate time to the ideas about race, gender, art and personal morality raised at the beginning. By the finale, the show isn’t depicting George’s fixation on women’s suffering so much as recreating it in gratuitous detail. This shift doesn’t just rob the story of thematic depth; it renders it impossible to draw a line between the exploitation I Am the Night depicts and the exploitation it practices.