Photo: Clay Enos (TNT)
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The best Los Angeles-set noir films—The Big Sleep, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential—serve as a shadow-history of the city. I Am The Night starts to find its raison d’être in this week’s episode “Phenomenon Of Interference” in the scenes where Fauna Hodel learns how much different her life will be in L.A., depending on whether she uses her real last name, or if she keeps telling people she’s the daughter of a working-class black woman from Reno. As Peter Sullivan tells Jay Singletary at one point in this episode—while the screen shows a destitute black man getting kicked off a bus and manhandled by the cops—“Justice in this town is a protection racket. You can’t fix it, because the fix is already in.”

I Am The Night’s first episode was a mixed bag: likably funky whenever it focused on Chris Pine’s down-and-out reporter Jay, and frustratingly stiff whenever the action shifted to India Eisley’s Fauna. I can’t really say that “Phenomenon Of Interference” is necessarily better. Screenwriter Sam Sheridan’s dialogue still veers from the prosaic to the colorful, as he approximates the flavor of classic pulp. But like the pilot, the second episode does move the plot forward, swiftly, and with a refreshing sense of purpose for a prestige cable drama.

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Well, mostly. Sheridan’s writing is at its best and worst in a scene about halfway through this week’s episode, when Jay receives a visit from his junkie ex-girlfriend Lily. Too much of the first two hours of I Am The Night  indulge in a common indie film narrative trick: the backstory trickle. Characters chatter obliquely—but constantly—about dark incidents in their past, without ever out-and-out saying what happened. When Jay’s ex arrives, for example, nearly all of their conversation is clumsily meant to fill us in on who they once were and who they are now—all allusively, of course. “We had the world by the balls, didn’t we?” she sighs. “I didn’t stick a needle into my arm, that’s your creature-feature,” he cracks. They both talk around the point.

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Still, that “creature-feature” line is example of what’s special about this show’s dialogue: It’s weird, man. Pine seems to be relishing the chance to describe his big career downfall as, “Like a biblical plague… like a double-shadow, blackening the grass it falls upon.” I don’t know anyone who talks like that in real life, but it’s a hoot to hear it on TV—as it ridiculous as it may be.

Similarly, the Fauna storyline this week gets better whenever it gets more baroque. When she arrives in Los Angeles and starts hanging out with her adoptive mother’s family, she endures several painful scenes—reminiscent of the worst of episode one—wherein her relatives and their friends take one look at her and recognize immediately that she’s not black. I Am The Night has been fairly sharp when it’s examining the systemic racism and classism that defines Los Angeles; it’s been disappointingly flat when it comes to anything having to do with Fauna’s racial identity.

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Her scenes pick up some snap though once she finally makes contact with her real family, and spends a bizarre afternoon with one of her grandpa George’s ex-wives, Corinna (Connie Nielsen). The older woman immediately slips into the role of the scold, schooling Fauna on how to be a Hodel: explaining the family’s Russian history, giving etiquette lessons, warning Fauna not to be like her troublesome mother, and hinting that George has a revolutionary, “freeing” philosophy of life.

Fauna soon gets to hear some of George’s pontification firsthand, when she happens across him and one of his associates walking through a Hodel-founded gallery, looking at the art. In addition to recognizing him right away as the stranger (played by Jefferson Mays) she met at the bus stop in Reno, she also listens to him spin a web of smart-sounding words about how “the bourgeois” should “remove the veils” and push beyond their “limited definitions of hallucination and perversion.”

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Photo: Clay Enos (TNT)

While Fauna’s getting her first introduction to the freaky Hodel lifestyle—where surrealism is prized above all—Jay’s also skulking about, ignoring his editor’s direct orders. In another one of those “talking around the full story” conversations, early in this episode, Peter reminds Jay that the last time he investigated George Hodel, it ruined his career and his relationships, nearly bankrupted his employer, and drove him to addiction. But at the prompting of Fauna’s adoptive mother—and a few lucky coincidences—he’s started to find some new leads in the Hodel case.

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One of those coincidences comes from the story he’s supposed to be reporting. As part of Peter’s “Sleaze Team,” Jay’s been tracking a serial killer of prostitutes, dubbed “Bloody Romeo.” A visit to a house of ill repute, and an afternoon of getting high with its madam, Mary (played by the phenomenal Dale Dickey), leads to the realization that George Hodel’s missing daughter Tamar could’ve been spirited away to a convent due to an embarrassing pregnancy. This leads him back into the Hodel circle, and to his first glimpse of Fauna—though he still hasn’t connected all the dots.

Surely, given this series’ fairly zippy pace, its two protagonists will cross paths soon. In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy Pine’s quirky take on the damaged detective archetype, which has him punching persnickety security guards, saying, “No, I want a donut” when a prostitute asks if he wants to party, and answering the question, “What happened to your face?” with, “Everything.”

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Personally, I’ll keep hoping for more scenes like the one between Jay and his cop buddy Ohls (Jay Paulson), who urges him to shut down the Bloody Romeo investigation because the LAPD has already coerced a notorious jailhouse snitch into confessing. “What if he’s not the guy?” Jay asks. “Jay, he’s always the guy,” Ohls responds.

Now that’s the L.A. noir I know and love.


Stray observations

  • I hesitate to criticize actors, because often their work is at the mercy of the script, the direction, and even the costuming and make-up departments. Still, two episodes into I Am The Night, I don’t really get what India Eisley is doing. How does someone who grew up in Nevada have a southern accent? The actress herself doesn’t seem to know who Fauna is meant to be. She looks, understandably, tentative. As a white woman playing a character who thinks she’s black—and perhaps not wanting to risk coming off as insensitive—Eisley ends up not doing much at all with Fauna, besides muttering meekly. So far, the performance has been a major drag on this story… especially given that it’s supposed to be inspired by the real Fauna Hodel.

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