A Legendary Murder Case Gets a New Spin in TNT’s Flashy Retro Noir ‘I Am the Night’

TNT’s new limited series “I Am the Night” drips with much atmosphere and dread, creating a stylish experience while offering an original take on a legendary murder. The series is not without its flaws, but the world being presented is enveloping enough to be endlessly, perversely fascinating. Having made a cultural and box office smash in 2017 with “Wonder Woman,” director Patty Jenkins initiates this saga and sets up the period beautifully.

It’s 1965 in Reno, Nevada and Fauna Hodel (India Eisley) appears to be having a regular small town, high school life, but up to a point. Fauna is mixed and deals with racism from the local, white police and her own African American classmates. She lives with her adoptive mother, Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), an alcoholic who was once a singer and now wallows in bitterness. Yet Fauna entertains the idea of marrying her boyfriend and living a rural American life. But this all changes when she finds a birth certificate not only confirming Jimmy is not her mother, but revealing the name of her actual birth parent. Fauna starts investigating and finds she may be connected to a Dr. George Hill Hodel (Jefferson Mays). She decides to set out to Los Angeles and discover her actual roots. In L.A. a different kind of searcher, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), squeezes out a living as a muck raking journalist, sometimes stalking Hollywood scandals on the beach. A former Marine, afflicted with some kind of PTSD (this is a noir so it is required), Jay’s life is a bit of a mess. He remains haunted by a murder case from years ago, but when a mutilated body turns up at the morgue, he finds a new case to obsess his scattered mind.

You won’t know it from the pilot, but eventually these initial plot threads will connect to the infamous Black Dahlia murder, an unsolved case which remains forever part of Los Angeles lore. “I Am the Night” is based on a memoir by the real and late Fauna Hodel, “One Day She’ll Darken.” The Hodel name is part of the Dahlia legend due to the idea that Dr. George Hill Hodel might have had something to do with the killing, a notion especially made popular by the book “The Black Dahlia Avenger,” written by Hodel’s son Steve. Like all those books claiming to know who the Zodiac or Jack the Ripper were, there’s no way of telling for sure if the Hodels have cracked the case, but Fauna’s book does provide the backbone for some enticing television. Jenkins’s direction sets the world of 1965 Nevada and L.A. with astonishing realism. Unlike most TV (or movies for that matter), Jenkins has shot the pilot on film, and this gives the period sensation an even greater effect. In classic noir fashion the rural roads are nearly terrifying, especially when bad cops lurk, and in L.A. the streets are neon-lit and lonely. Journalists sit around bars, talking about their work is if it were holy, and Pine barges in, needing work and a drink.

The leads are well cast. Chris Pine has the rugged exterior for a noir hero and India Eisley has a presence built on feeling uncertain, but having guts. How their strengths will play in the overall show remains to be seen. The pilot gives little away, or little story. It’s all about setting up the world and its inhabitants. Dr. Hodel is an ominous, inviting voice over the telephone, it’s only in the episode’s final seconds that we see him presiding over a decadent party, without uttering a word. The Black Dahlia is never even mentioned in the inaugural episode. The focus in this first chapter is on Fauna trying to leave her horrible home situation, while Jay is simply being introduced to us. He drinks, looks for pills at home, contemplates suicide but must keep going. How he will connect with Fauna and the Hodel case remains to be seen.

What we get in the pilot are intriguing set ups and some memorable scenes. A moment where Fauna is stopped at night by police officers who don’t realize she is mixed has superb tension, and Golden Brooks as a raging, bitter conscience steals the scenes where she appears. Chris Pine is the only one who seems to be struggling a bit with the material. He has the look for noir, but can’t seem to figure out if he wants to play the role straight or funny. Maybe it’s because Jenkins herself doesn’t go full dark yet, even choosing some odd, almost slapstick music for a morgue scene featuring a brief glimpse of a savagely mutilated corpse.

Television takes much longer than a simple movie to get the narrative flowing, so as an introduction the first episode of “Into the Night” shows just enough to keep us interested. That final party scene with Dr. Fodel promises a tale of debauched Hollywood madness. This case has just opened.

I Am the Night” premieres Jan. 28 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.