There is a dandy story at the heart of “I am the Night,” a new limited series that premiered Monday night: the notorious Black Dahlia mystery.
The case has spawned a cottage industry of books, films and TV movies since Elizabeth Short’s dismembered body was discovered in 1947 in LA. Real-life gynecologist George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) was one of several suspects in the unsolved case, and he’s also the villain of this series, set in the ’60s and created by Sam Sheridan and partly directed by his wife Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”).
Hodel lived in a Mayan revival Los Feliz mansion that was the scene of orgies and where his daughter Tamar told police he — and his friends — raped her. The twisted legacy of the Hodel family becomes the focus of the show as Tamar’s 16-year-old daughter, Fauna (India Eisley), tries to find her real family. Be careful what you wish for.
Fauna has been raised to believe she is a mixed-race child, making her a misfit in the African-American community where she lives with her “mother” Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), an alcoholic cocktail-lounge singer with a mean streak. Her quest to discover her identity is paired, improbably, with the efforts of hack journalist Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) to track down the fictitious “Bloody Romeo” killer. Neither knight in shining armor nor outright skell, he nonetheless exhibits some suspect behavior when he invites Fauna into his blue Falcon to escape a stalker without even introducing himself. And why would Singletary take Fauna, a minor, on a plane trip to Hawaii to look for her birth mother without bringing along Jimmy Lee?
In moments like these, “I Am the Night,” while generally suspenseful, doesn’t work. The show is rich in the seedy glamour that makes LA such a perfect setting for film noir, but takes on a bit more than it can satisfyingly develop in six episodes — themes of identity, race — including the shocking 1965 Watts riots, in which 34 people died — and true crime.
Fauna and Singletary make a strange pair — a symbiosis of need and mistrust. Eisley nicely conveys Fauna’s bewilderment and outrage as she realizes how many times she has been lied to by the “adults” in her world. As Singletary, pretty-boy Pine is a chip off the old Jim Rockford block — the snoop who’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time — and, like James Garner, he displays an unexpected comedic flair.
Mays should make your skin crawl as Hodel, but he seems utterly conventional in the overpopulated TV landscape of creeps and pedophiles. Connie Nielsen slithers through her role as a dead-end blonde in Hodel’s employ. To the company, one wants to say: Nice try.
In some ways, “I Am the Night” is too much — and not enough — of a good thing.
By Robert Rorke