Over the past ten years, Chris Pine has played Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, the vintage comic book heartthrob Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Tom Clancy’s brilliant government intelligence tactician Jack Ryan in Shadow Recruit, Cinderella’s prince in Into The Woods, and the Murry children’s lost dad in A Wrinkle In Time. And then there’s what may be his two best roles: as the heartbroken bank robber in Hell Or High Water, and as the voice of the idealized version of Peter Parker in Into The Spider-Verse.
In short: This guy’s a bona fide movie star. He’s handsome and soulful—arguably the best of “the Chrises.”
So what the heck’s he doing in a basic cable miniseries?
If nothing else, the first episode of TNT’s six-part I Am The Night makes it clear what drew Pine to this project. He looks to be having a blast playing the reckless, drug-addicted tabloid reporter Jay Singletary: an archetypal neo-noir antihero, as crafty as he is damaged. Pine’s Jay is halfway between Russell Crowe’s Bud White and Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley in the movie L.A. Confidential—and don’t think that the series’ creators are unaware of the similarities. In fact, the best way to describe I Am The Night is “James Ellroy: The TV Show.”
It’s less obvious from episode one whether this show is going to measure up to its influences, or if it’ll just be a decent Chris Pine showcase, filled out with a lot of derivative plot and play-acting. One hour in, I Am The Night is a decidedly mixed bag.
“Pilot” spends most of its running time introducing the story’s main characters. Singletary is a fairly easy guy to “get.” About halfway through the episode, one of his colleagues, Peter Sullivan (played by Leland Orser) vaguely suggests that Jay has a long and complicated backstory. (“What’s wrong with him? Where do I even start?”) But the gist actually comes across fairly quickly. Jay was a marine. Jay saw some messy combat. Jay came home to resume his gig as a crack Los Angeles journalist, before one big bear of a story knocked him into the gutter. (“Some stories you can’t tell,” Sullivan says. “Some stories don’t want to be told. Some stories will eat you alive.”)
The details of this fabled assignment-gone-wrong are left untold for now, but presumably it has to do with the real subject of I Am The Night (more on that in a moment); and with the miniseries’ other lead. India Eisley plays a character introduced as “Pat,” the light-skinned teenage daughter of an irascible mom, Jimmie Lee (Golden Brooks), living in a working class suburb of Reno, Nevada. One drunken night, Jimmy Lee finally tells the child the truth: Her real name is Fauna Hodel, the granddaughter of the rich L.A. doctor George Hodel. Many years ago, a desperate stranger in a Las Vegas bathroom offered Fauna to Jimmy to raise, and the childless preacher’s wife jumped at the offer, even though disguising a little blond-haired girl as black for a decade-plus has been excruciatingly difficult for both of them.
By the end of this first episode, Fauna has left Nevada to pursue her Hodel heritage, unaware that grandpa George has already been trying to track her down. Her storyline lands in a promising place when the hour’s up—which is a good thing, because for most of I Am The Night’s part one, pretty much every scene outside of L.A. is a drag.
This isn’t Eisley’s fault—or Brooks’, for that matter. Both actresses attack their parts with passion. But much of the Fauna storyline so far plays like a remedial lesson in mid-‘50s race-relations, with bit-players hitting only the biggest, broadest notes in a series of pro forma scenes: Fauna gets rejected by the white girls in the lunchroom; Fauna gets threatened by the black girls at the after-school hangout; the cops stop Fauna when she’s walking home from work with her dark-skinned boyfriend; and so on. It’s a very curtailed and over-familiar depiction of this young woman’s life. There’s apparently not much more to her than the struggles she’s faced.
To be fair, I Am The Night is based on a true story. It was inspired by the real Fauna Hodel’s memoir, One Day She’ll Darken (the TNT project’s original title), a book that uses fiction techniques to dig into how it felt to be a white girl raised as black, and to explain how everything changed when she learned about her connection to George Hodel.
As for George, he has his own measure of infamy: many amateur sleuths and investigators have him pegged as the man who, in 1947, murdered Elizabeth Short, a.k.a the “Black Dahlia.” If true, that would make him one of the most famous untried and unconvicted killers of all time.
I Am The Night will surely get into all of that over the course of the next five weeks—and some other big secrets as well, hinted at in part one but not explained. (I don’t think any of these mysteries will be a surprise to anyone once they finally do come out, especially since they’re mentioned openly on the One Day She’ll Darken book jacket; still, in the interest of preserving the viewing experience for the spoiler-averse, I’ll save them for future reviews.) In the meantime, the episode ends with a tease of the decadence to come, showing a wild party—bordering on an orgy—at the Hodel estate.
Pine is an executive producer on I Am The Night, as is his Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who helmed the pilot episode. The script is credited to Jenkins’ husband, Sam Sheridan, who’s written several well-regarded memoirs about his life as a rugged adventurer and MMA fighter.
Frankly, the writing is the weakest part of this series so far. In the Nevada scenes especially, the dialogue’s too blunt, and over-reliant on a pulpy version of the working-class vernacular. The words pop a lot more in the scenes with Singletary in L.A. It’s almost as though Sheridan, Jenkins, and Pine were much more interested in the fictional character they’ve inserted into Fauna Hodel’s story than in Fauna herself.
(Is this split character focus “problematic,” as the young folks say? Quite possibly. But I’ll withhold judgment on that until later episodes.)
All of that said, the episode does at least move at a swift pace, and although it’s about serious subjects, it’s not as relentlessly grim as most prestige TV dramas. The most memorable sequence cuts between two scenes of sleuthing around medical facilities: Fauna doing some investigating into her origins at the hospital where she works, and Jay skulking around a morgue in pursuit of a story. The drama inherent in Fauna’s quest is undercut by Jay’s almost slapstick bumbling, which comes to appropriately ridiculous end when he accidentally gets locked in a cadaver-drawer, and then sets fire to a whole vial of cocaine while trying to take a bump, because he’s simultaneously using his lighter to see what he’s doing.
That oddly comical approach to Singletary character extends to a darkly funny climactic scene in this episode, where Jay tries to hang himself, but instead falls flat on his back when he gets distracted by a ringing telephone. It’s still not entirely clear why a star of Pine’s calibre is doing this miniseries, but perhaps it’s just to get the chance to do weird bits of physical business like this, and to spout old-school tough-guy lines like, “You feeling froggy? We can do this dance. We can jump. Just pick a lily pad.”
If so, god bless the man. It’s always fun to see an actor have fun, even in a story about regret and despair.
- I’ve started reading Hodel’s book, and will use this space in the weeks ahead to do a little compare-and-contrast between the two versions of the story. I’m also looking forward to digging a little into the history of the Black Dahlia case and of Los Angeles in the 1950s. I have an enduring fascination with L.A. set crime stories in any era, but especially from the mid 20th century. Whether I Am The Night turns out to be a crushing disappointment or a minor gem, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.