Directed by Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins, TNT's new limited series I Am the Night is a strange hybrid of fact and fiction. It centers on the real-life story of Fauna Hodel, who was raised by Black parents in Reno, Nevada, but later discovered that she was adopted and not multiracial, as she'd grown up believing. (The show is loosely based on Hodel's 2008 memoir One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.)
The truth of Fauna's origin has a connection to one of America's most infamous crimes: Her grandfather was George Hodel, a wealthy celebrity gynecologist who was a prime suspect in the unsolved 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, AKA "the Black Dahlia." Two years after Short's death, Hodel's daughter Tamar—Fauna's birth mother—accused him of sexual abuse. He was acquitted, but Tamar's testimony is what led detectives to suspect him in the Dahlia case. After having Hodel's private residence, the foreboding Sowden House, electronically bugged by law enforcement in 1950, and subsequently being recorded admitting to paying off cops, performing illegal abortions, and possibly to killing Short and his own secretary, Hodel fled the US before he could be arrested, and lived in Asia until 1990.
Only two episodes have been released, but so far, I Am the Night has somehow managed to make this riveting story of murder, familial lies, abuses of power, and police corruption a total snooze fest.
So far, I Am the Night has somehow managed to make a riveting story of murder, familial lies, abuses of power, and police corruption a total snooze fest.
First off, it's set in 1960s Los Angeles, and the teenaged Fauna—played by a permanently doe-eyed India Eisley—is on a desperate hunt for answers about her family. In this version of history, George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) has not left the country. And they've inserted a fictional character into the mix: Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), a drug-addled tabloid journalist with PTSD, the result of his service in the Korean War. He's not particularly likable and is full of weird, unfunny one-liners like, “If you’re feeling froggy, we can do this dance. Pick a lily pad."
Chris Pine is by far my favorite Hollywood Chris, but his I Am the Night character is basically a haphazard composite of neo-noir detective clichés. Maybe that's just what happens when you literally invent a justice-seeking man to be the driving force in a story that does not need him. There are flashes of LA Confidential's Sergeant Ed Exley, Chinatown's Jake Gittes, The Big Lebowski's enrobed Dude, and even Inherent Vice's Doc Sportello—all white guys hired to investigate the disappearance or murder of a white girl. In I Am the Night, the emphasis on Singletary's motivations overshadows what really (allegedly) happened: A man hurt women and used his money and power to avoid the consequences. Though he's depicted as a lovable fuckup, Singletary's inclusion in this show (and others like it) plays into a dangerous narrative.
Alice Bolin hits the nail on the head in her excellent book Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, which was one of my favorite reads of 2018: "There can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder." Just look at Twin Peaks' Special Agent Dale Cooper; there is a clear pattern in pop culture's overabundance of "dead girl" narratives where the victim becomes a prop unto which righteous men can project their own feelings.
If true crime is inherently exploitative, it's important to critically examine our own relationship with the narratives it reinforces, especially as American pop culture undergoes a true-crime renaissance, from hit podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder to sexy Ted Bundy movies to the docu-drama anthology series American Crime Story (which has delved into the OJ Simpson murder case and the slaying of Gianni Versace). So far, I Am the Night has failed to adequately represent the perspectives of the women it's supposedly about. The result is something that's way more boring than it should be.