I’ve seen all six episodes of I Am the Night, the new miniseries debuting Jan. 28, 9 p.m. on TNT. I mean this as critique and compliment: I don’t totally get it. It’s an elusive tale, a heart-on-the-sleeve biopic shapeshifting into paranoid true-crime noir, set against an ambitious panorama of mid-century racial unrest, California mysticism, postwar PTSD, and the social blight of performance art. The central mystery’s quite creaky, somehow obvious and incoherent. But the show looks great. Too many current dramas signal their super-duper seriousness with a shadow-gray color palette. Whereas I Am the Night is magic-hour noir, shot on painterly film under sunlight as golden-glorious as Chris Pine‘s hair.
The series begins with Pat (India Eisley), a mixed-race teenager raised by her African-American mother Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks) in Nevada. It’s 1965, and Pat experiences the era’s pervasive racism with a surreal twist. She looks white enough to “pass,” to use a term from the bad old days. She doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere — and that’s before she finds out she’s adopted.
Her real name is Fauna Hodel, a revelation that leads her to Los Angeles. There she meets Jay Singletary (Pine), a proverbial drinker with a writing problem. Jay’s a last-chance journalist, snapping tabloid pics of cheating celebs and chopped-up corpses. He’s haunted by memories of the Korean War — he killed seven or eight guys with, no joke, a shovel! — which unfortunately means I Am The Night is the second grim limited series this month where the main character experiences invasive hallucinations of dead Asian soldiers.
And just like Mahershala Ali’s Wayne Hays on True Detective, Jay’s tormented by unfinished business. Years ago, he investigated the strange case of George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a wealthy doctor with tendril-ties throughout the power structures of greater Los Angeles. George happens to be Fauna’s biological grandfather, and happens to throw demi-demonic orgies in a house that looks like the kind of temple where alien cyborgs build their space gods.
Night is a fictionalization rampant enough to include occasional cameos by a devil bull. But George and Fauna were real people — his iconic Lloyd Wright house plays itself — and the series taps genuine SoCal history plus Hollyweird rumor. The Black Dahlia murder is a subplot, and at one point, someone just casually drives by the Watts riots.
Fauna and Jay take their time circling toward each other. They crisscross through the social stratosphere of mid-’60s Los Angeles: grand Pasadena houses, Fauna’s relatives in south Los Angeles, lush beaches, fancy art galleries. Creator Sam Sheridan is working from a fascinating true story, but the onscreen investigation stretches credulity. There are phone calls at just-right moments, and a dropped address book full of secrets.
Jay is the kind of composite character who feels awkwardly stapled to history: In a typical bit of investigative journalism, he has a transformative lightbulb moment because he randomly buys a magazine. Huzzah for the printed word, I guess, but you suspect someone’s smudging complex truth with procedural gloss. And there’s a straight-edge vibe to Night, halfway CBS-y. Our pretty heroes face an evil axis of murderers, abortionists, Tinseltown mystics, and modernism. Clichés about spooooooooky artist types abound. There’s a running comparison of grotesque murders to the body-twisting tropes of surrealism — but Dali didn’t kill anyone, you bastards!
And yet, Pine and Eisley are just so glamourously pretty, two shining pairs of Pacific-toned eyes lighting the noir darkness. Eisley’s casting is tricky in some ways, but she’s a captivating innocent self-realizing toward self-immolation. People keep telling her to stop searching, and she never does — an act of tough bravery that is also, we discover, painfully naive. And Pine makes great human wreckage. His best scenes are when he visits his editor (the great Leland Orser), whose main office seems to be a bar.
Behind the scenes, it’s a family affair. Showrunner Sheridan is married to Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who helms the first two eps. You’ll recall Pine as the superhero’s soldier bae, and Jenkins also recruited Wonder Woman‘s matriarch, Connie Nielsen, to play George’s ex. Jenkins hands off directing duties to Victoria Mahoney (for episodes 3 and 4) and then Carl Franklin (for the final two episodes). Franklin, in particular, brings a hallucinatory quality to material that gets steadily wilder. There’s a shot of George from the final episode I can’t get out of my head: A rich man in his big house staring at smoke from distant Watts, pluming upwards beyond the palm trees outside his GDP-sized window.
Night stumbles through some complex racial themes; to be blunt, it’s more comfortable with the rapey-murdery angle. But there’s sincere texture in the exploration of Fauna’s African-American family. Brooks, best known for Girlfriends, gives a stunning performance full of maternal strength and existential resentment — and she sings, too! Night isn’t great L.A. Noir — the plot moves at corpse speed — but it’s a vivid TV treat, filmed in real locations haunted by history that might just be too weird for basic cable. B