Finding a new way into an old story is a framework to which television is uniquely suited, but it’s also trickier than it may seem. A show can take its time delving into different chapters of any single narrative, broadening and deepening perspectives that other adaptations may have given short shrift. But in trying to be comprehensive, a show can also default to tried-and-true tropes by flattening the characters into facsimiles rather than fleshing them out as people.
Such is the conflict at play in “I Am the Night,” TNT’s ambitious new noir drama, created by Sam Sheridan and executive produced by “Wonder Woman” helmer Patty Jenkins (who directed the first two episodes). The limited series is inspired by the extraordinary real life of Fauna Hodel, a white girl who grew up in Nevada thinking she was mixed race after a wealthy family gave her to a black casino attendant shortly after her birth. She later discovered the deeply unsettling reasons why by unraveling the gnarled knots of her ancestry, revealing links to some of Hollywood’s most enduring mysteries.
The most famous of them is that of the so-called Black Dahlia, the salacious name given to actress Elizabeth Short after she was killed in such shockingly brutal fashion that her death remains one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries in Hollywood. Fauna, as it turned out, was the granddaughter of George Hodel, a Los Angeles gynecologist whose sinister disposition and alleged sex crimes made him a prime suspect in Short’s murder. “I Am the Night” is based on truth but does stretch it to create so many compelling twists and turns that even six episodes feels like barely enough time to explore them all. (Another thing to keep in mind is that Jenkins was close to the real Fauna Hodel before her death in 2017, and Hodel’s daughters are co-hosting TNT’s companion podcast to the series.)
And so “I Am the Night” shines the spotlight squarely on Fauna, portrayed by India Eisley with wide-eyed naiveté that occasionally crystallizes into a flinty determination to get to the bottom of her complicated origin story. After leaving Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), her increasingly resentful mother figure, Fauna sets out to find the truth, which is much more slippery and disturbing than she could have ever imagined. Fauna’s journey eventually collides with that of Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), a shellshocked Korean War veteran and journalist whose hard-news days are behind him — largely because he went after the elusive Hodel (Jefferson Mays) and failed to pin him down.
“I Am the Night” reunites Jenkins and Pine, who worked together on “Wonder Woman” and its upcoming sequel. It’s easy to see why they continue to gravitate to each other. Jenkins casts Pine in roles that make use of his obvious handsomeness without making it the prime focus. Jay isn’t based on any single person, but he will seem familiar to anyone with even glancing knowledge of noir detective stories. He’s charming but flawed, smart but cocky, gruff but ultimately too caring to screw anyone but the bad guys over. Pine throws himself into the part with his usual gusto, giving Jay a manic edge that keeps him from floating too far into cliché.
That does not, unfortunately, hold true for the rest of the series, which proves to be the kind of drama wherein a revelation drops and a dramatic peal of thunder isn’t far behind. “I Am the Night” isn’t one for subtleties; Brooks, Mays and Connie Nielsen as a pontificating socialite lean so hard into the melodrama of their roles that there’s practically no scenery left after they’ve chewed it to the ground.
But every once in a while, “I Am the Night” clicks into a propulsive and exciting gear. (This happens most often under the watchful eye of Victoria Mahoney, tapping in to direct two episodes that reveal her skill for pushing tension to its breaking point.) It’s hard to argue the merits of a slick thriller starring a talent such as Pine, even when it gets carried away. Sometimes, after all, getting carried away by a magnetic mystery is exactly the point.
Limited series, 60 mins. 6 episodes (5 watched for review). Premieres January 28 on TNT at 9 p.m. EST.
Cast: Chris Pine, India Eisley, Jefferson Mays, Leland Orser, Yul Vasquez, Dylan Smith, Golden Brooks, Justin Cornwell, Jay Paulson, Connie Nielsen.
Crew: Executive producers: Patty Jenkins, Chris Pine, Sam Sheridan, Michael Sugar.