Locked inside a bedroom in the mansion of a sinister and epically creepy man, Fauna Hodel (India Eisley) contemplates her escape. In the room there is a chessboard, a really artsy one with abstracted pieces: Sharp-tipped cones, long cylinders. She picks one up. Close-up on her hand, fingering the chess piece meaningfully. It is a pawn, and it is very pointed. So is she. And so is this scene! Ta-daa!
In case anyone needed another cautionary tale on this matter, I bring you a public service announcement from TNT: When you tell young people that they will never accomplish anything as artists, terrible freaking things happen. Hitler was a failed artist, guys. And so was super-genius George Hodel, who just might have put his enthusiasm for surrealism to work carving women into Cubist works—women who might have included Elizabeth Short, popularly known as The Black Dahlia.
I’m trying super hard to put my very best critic pants on and not just whine that there are too many shows about corrupt cops, or serial killers and the unsinkable journalists who love them, or “She’s my sister and my daughter!” or whatever, because obviously, it’s irrelevant to a given program that other programs explore similar subjects or themes. But I have to pay a little lip service to the elephant in this room and note that just because there is a true crime story in your neighborhood doesn’t mean you have to ring the doorbell.
It frustrates me to say this, because I admire Patty Jenkins—who directed the first two episodes, written by husband Sam Sheridan—and because Chris Pine and the rest of the cast does a bang-up job on the performance front. But I Am the Night fails my personal acid test.
For one thing, it engages in a certain, slightly disingenuous tango with history that makes me uncomfortable. I recognize I might be an outlier in this regard, but I’m going to go ahead and say I’m not sure I ought to be. “Based on true events” stories walk a fine line, sometimes—in this case, clearly presenting George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) as a rapist, a pedophile, a committer of incest, a multiple murderer, and of course an Olympic-par gaslighter. He might have been any or all of those things, but in real life, Short’s murder remains unsolved, and his involvement remains in the realm of “theory of the case.” Which means I Am the Night risks presenting as history events and characters who are essentially fictional, or fantasias. And I tend to think there’s a responsibility on showrunners to be circumspect about that. (Um, the George Hodel here seriously has enlarged police photos of Short’s mutilated body on his walls.) This creates a tension problem, too, because these real people had real deaths, and we already know (or can find out, after a quick consultation with Dr. Google) neither of them killed the other, so the drama of them holding one another at the point of a gun or knife is… weakened.
I’m also starting to get tired of the current vogue for making all protagonists have PTSD. Chris Pine’s Jay Singletary, a former Marine-turned-reporter, is entirely believable as a character in general, and as a character whose limbic system got all messed up in the war in particular. It’s just… really, not everyone needs a psychological disorder to justify their arc. And Fauna? The character oscillates wildly between being a 1,000-year-old in a teen body and being bewilderingly green. I mean, pick one, unless there’s going to be significant textual justification for her being whichever version of the character works more expediently in a given scene.
I find myself wondering how things might have played out had this been a feature film and not a six-episode drama. With a more constrained form, perhaps Sheridan and company would have been inspired to avoid tangents, improbably torqued backstories, jaunts into the past that aren’t really in anyone’s point-of-view, and excessive lingering, not to mention the killer delivering an artist’s-manifesto monologue about how a real surrealist would be like him and butcher people. Or a gunpoint dissertation on, of all remarkable things, the nature of clichés! I totally didn’t need to have that spelled out. You probably don’t either.
I just couldn’t quite get why Fauna keeps going back to the Hodels for “help” after someone connected to them has already tried to murder her. I mean, that’s weird. And when someone creepy offers you a beverage and sits there staring you down, seeming incredibly invested in whether or not you drink it, and they are holding their own glass provocatively close and not drinking from it—I don’t know, but I’d be pretty likely to assume there were knockout drops in that drink. And why is Jay suddenly forging an ominous alliance with cops who have basically said, “And now I shall beat the shit out of you, for lo, I am corrupt, amoral and incredibly violent” in like 19 scenes already? At one point, Fauna even stands before of a murderous rapist and delivers a speech. Oh, please. Chris Pine, come crashing through the window and rescue us from this monologue.
But possibly the most significant problem is that the entire miniseries is kind of a fashion victim. What I mean is this: It isn’t really set up to be a true-crime drama in the beginning. It’s a potentially fascinating adoption story, and, in particular, an exploration of some of the truly complicated aspects of identity and racial politics: Fauna is raised by a Black adoptive mother, believing that she’s biracial. (It’s not totally clear whether adoptive mom Jimmy, played by Golden Brooks, knows both of Fauna’s birth parents were white; she doesn’t seem to). Jimmy is an abusive alcoholic, and they live in poverty. Fauna’s Black schoolmates largely don’t relate to her as a Black girl, society at large doesn’t accept her as white, and she’s in a fair amount of psychological pain over her ambiguous identity. That’s a lot. It’s enough. It’s enough for six episodes, certainly. A search for birth parents that raises resentment in the adoptive parent, resulting in answers the girl comes to wish she didn’t have? That’s a lot! Discovering that the family that put you up for adoption are super-wealthy and possibly criminals? Not to belabor the point, but: That’s. A. Lot.
But the opportunity to turn this story into “true crime”—and sell it as such—proves impossible to pass up. As a result, I Am the Night slips into speculation about the Black Dahlia murder, not to mention the damaged journalist determined to expose the corrupt rich guy, the L.A. riots, police brutality, stalking and Surrealist art. But we don’t get anything special from delving into a sensationalized cold case from the 1940s. It’s almost tangential—indeed, almost random. A focused portrait of Fauna Hodel, in which the murders are in the distance where they belong, could have been an amazing contemplation of who gets to define identity, or family, or both. Hell, a portrait of George Hodel, a purported genius physician who was taught piano by Sergei Rachmaninov as a child—who, by the by, was not only a Black Dahlia suspect and tried for incest, but was even theorized to have been the notorious Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco? That could have been fascinating, too. But by making Fauna, and Jay, the twin centers of a story that is nonetheless about George and a high-profile murder victim, I Am The Night becomes the dramatic equivalent of a name-dropping social media poseur.
I Am the Night premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on TNT.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.