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After the bombastic debut of Wonder Woman, everyone and their mother was wondering what director Patty Jenkins’ next project would be. In an unusual move, the in-demand director didn’t leverage her way into dominating another multimillion-dollar franchise; she instead turned to TV for an intimate six-episode mini-series called I Am the Night. Based on One Day She’ll Darken, the memoir of Fauna Hodel, the miniseries attempts to sew together true events with fictional characters and storylines to mixed success.
For those unfamiliar with Fauna Hodel’s story, she is both the daughter and granddaughter of George Hodel, the Los Angeles plastic surgeon widely believed to be the infamous Black Dahlia killer. One of the most well-known unsolved true crime stories of American history, the Black Dahlia killer mutilated and arranged the bodies of his victims — always young, beautiful women — in surrealist, almost artistic tableaus that horrified and scintillated the American public. While rumors swirled around George Hodel, a case was never solidified against him because of his backhanded power deals with the LAPD. Notoriously known as the man who owned LA, George Hodel was only publicly accused of the murders by one person: his teenage daughter Tamar Hodel. In a wild turn of events, this accusation came out as part of a police investigation into a different crime George Hodel was accused of — raping his own daughter Tamar. After George was acquitted of incest charges in a highly publicized incest trial, Tamar disappeared to give birth to a baby girl, Fauna.
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In the loosest sense of the phrase, Tamar’s mother (George’s ex-wife) put Fauna up for adoption. Taken in by a black woman who was a preacher’s wife, Fauna grew up believing she was mixed race and simply so light-skinned that she could be white passing. Part of the reason for this is because on her birth certificate, Tamar listed Fauna’s birth father’s race as black. But unfortunately for Fauna, whose father was in fact George Hodel, she never did darken. After growing up and struggling to find her place in the world, Fauna found her birth mother and unraveled a tangled web of horrific family secrets.
It’s on this structure that Jenkins attempts to build a fictional narrative. Enter Chris Pine (who gave a killer performance as the love interest in Wonder Woman) as a haggard reporter and former Korean War vet, Jay Singletary. In the alt-history world of I Am the Night, Jay was set to be a hotshot reporter after his relentless reporting on George Hodel’s (Jefferson Mays) incest case. When justice was thwarted, he was blacklisted by every outlet except the most salacious and muckraking of the gossip rags. Add to that undiagnosed PTSD and an urge to self-medicate with illegal drugs, and the version of Singletary we meet has hit rock bottom and is contemplating how much longer he can keep scraping by writing stories he knows are journalistically unsound. He’s still obsessed with the Hodel case, and Pine’s dogged, self-destructive, and heart-breaking performance as Jay is what pulls the viewer from episode to episode. Pine’s ferocious commitment to the role elucidates the romantic ideal most reporters like to think of themselves as: a heroic heart relentless in the pursuit of the truth; the kind of character whose rough edges come from the parts of themselves they’ve sacrificed to the job, for the good of the people.
But unfortunately the rest of the mini-series can’t keep up with the intensity of Pine’s performance as a man on the verge. A small part of that is due to the fact that India Eisley plays Fauna Hodel as a beautiful but blank slate for the first half of the series. It’s only when Fauna runs away to LA to find her “real family” and her path intersects with Jay that Eisley’s performance starts showing signs of life. Every scene she has with Pine brings out strong emotion; the connection between these two characters — despite the fact that Jay lies to her and uses her to reopen his investigation into George Hodel — is one of the few in the series that showcases any real kindness and warmth. In fact, Eisley’s best performance of the series is in the finale as Fauna understands and enacts a terrible lesson that Jay tried to teach her.
But the real reason the series stumbles over itself is because, like with any true crime case, it’s only compelling to retell when there’s new evidence to present. Considering the cases that have dominated pop culture recently — Adnan Syed of Serial Season 1, and Steven Avery of Making a Murderer at the forefront — and you’ll notice that part of the reason they captured America’s attention is because there was real hope of enacting justice. Maybe technology had advanced enough to make a DNA match, or a key witness account that had been thrown out for suspicious reasons could be appealed, perhaps a new suspect had cropped up in the intervening years; whatever the situation may be, the bottom line is the most closely followed and compelling true-crime stories come with renewed hope of resolution.
In the case of George Hodel and the Black Dahlia killer, however, there’s no new information, evidence, or testimony that can be introduced to provide a definitive ruling. The case is simply too old, with no physical evidence left to examine, and the key players — Tamar and Fauna in particular — dead. In a sense, George Hodel got away with it because there’s no resolution for his victims. Both the women he killed and the women he spared, but psychologically destroyed, lived and died in limbo waiting for the boogie man to come back for them.
In that light, it makes sense that all the fictional parts of I Am the Night — aka all of Pine’s work as Jay Singletary and roughshod, coked-up characters who orbited him in the seedy underbelly of LA — are far more compelling than a retread of of one of the most horrific crimes in American history. While the true parts of this true-crime story work to illustrate how ruinous one man’s ego can really be, the audience already knows that George Hodel won’t be brought to justice. In the face of such grim reality, it’s far easier to turn to the few fictional characters who at least have the potential of finding solace in the insidious world of I Am the Night.
Mileage will truly vary for each viewer of the mini-series because the question it really asks is if you can find a way to be at peace with living in a brutally unjust world. If you can, then you’ll probably find a much deeper connection with this uneven series.
I Am the Night premieres Monday, Jan. 28 on TNT at 9/8c.