TNT’s I Am the Night feels like a show from another time, and not because the mystery limited series takes place in 1965 Los Angeles. Rather, it seems a throwback to five years ago, when the television business was racing to copy the success of True Detective Season One with a variety of anthological crime stories, often set in the past and/or featuring movie stars not known for working on the small screen. In Peak TV, five years is an eternity, enough time for the True Detective phenomenon to have cratered, then resumed at a more modest level with a long-delayed third season that premiered only a few weeks ago. Ryan Murphy’s various anthologies are still being made, but the other shows from this mini-boom are either on long delays of their own (Fargo, which probably won’t be back until sometime next year) or canceled (RIP, ABC’s American Crime).
But even if a time machine could deliver the six episodes of I Am the Night (it debuts Monday; I’ve seen the whole thing) back to the spring of 2014, they would still be disappointing. It boasts a terrific lead performance from Chris Pine — in a Wonder Woman reunion with Patty Jenkins, who directs the first two episodes, and Connie Nielsen, who plays a supporting role — but the story’s much too slow to get going and doesn’t deliver enough payoff to merit the wait.
A big part of the problem is that creator Sam Sheridan is telling two parallel stories that at times converge, but one is much more compelling than the other. In that one, Pine plays Jay Singletary, a disgraced reporter with a heroin habit and unaddressed PTSD from his days as a Korean War hero(*). In the other, India Eisley is Fauna Hodel, a biracial teenager who’s been raised by an adoptive black mother but can pass for white. (It’s an ongoing source of tension whenever police officers notice her traveling with black friends.) Fauna’s attempt to find her birth mother and/or her reclusive and powerful grandfather George (Jefferson Mays) winds up intersecting with the story that ruined Jay’s career — it involves an abortion doctor, a twisted sex/murder cult and perhaps the Black Dahlia killings — offering him a shot at redemption if he can stay alive long enough to write about it. (Nielsen plays George’s ex-wife Corinna, in an accent that seems to wander not only from scene to scene, but often line to line.)
(*) Both Jay and Mahershala Ali’s character on True Detective this year have nightmares about their military service that are coincidentally identical in many of their visual choices. Be prepared to double-take if you wind up watching both seasons all the way through.
Pine delivers an impressively committed, twitchy performance as a far more damaged type than he usually plays, and directors Jenkins, Victoria Mahoney and Carl Franklin periodically deliver some macabre imagery that lives up to Corinna’s suggestion that, “What is dreamt is often more real than what we think of as real.” (This is another True Detective commonality: hints of the supernatural in the midst of a tale that’s ultimately quite earthbound.)
But I Am the Night is at its roots Fauna’s story — it was inspired by a memoir by the real Fauna Hodel, One Day She’ll Darken — and Eisley is not up to carrying the emotional load it requires, especially at this measured pace. Over the course of six hours, Fauna is forced to grow up a lot from the largely sheltered girl we first meet, but Eisley’s performance barely varies from one landing point to the next. While Jay’s end of things is dripping with film noir tropes (one pivotal confrontation takes place in Chinatown, just in case we’re not clear that this story has things to say about the murky morality of powerful institutions), it’s much livelier thanks to Pine, even if Jay ultimately turns out to be primarily Fauna’s sidekick. Unfortunately, in the main storyline, when someone calls out George as a cliché, he doesn’t come across as anything more than that.
At one point, Jay is warned, “Some stories don’t want to be told. Some stories’ll eat you alive.” I Am the Night is more a story that didn’t really need to be told, at least not with this flaccid execution.