Entertainment

TNT's Black Dahlia Mystery 'I Am the Night' Fails Because of Its True-Crime Premise

i am the night tnt
India Eisley and Chris Pine in 'I Am the Night.' | TNT
India Eisley and Chris Pine in 'I Am the Night.' | TNT

If you aren't already familiar with the ins and outs of the Black Dahlia murder case that rocked the entire country in the winter of 1947, it might take a while to understand what TNT's new six-part limited series I Am the Night has to do with one of the most infamous cold cases in American history. The show, created by Sam Sheridan and directed in part by Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), takes place about 20 years after the murder and the resulting media circus, and revolves around the disturbing tale of Fauna Hodel, whose memoir, One Day She'll Darken, inspired the series. Unfortunately, as with most entertainment that's based on fact, I Am the Night suffers from one inescapable flaw: It's hamstrung by its own true-crime nature.

I Am the Night begins with Fauna, then called Pat (played by India Eisley), believing she is the mixed-race daughter of Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), who has raised her since she was a girl. Fauna's mixed-race heritage -- and, later, lack thereof -- does offer itself to a few interesting conversations about community and belonging, but it quickly falls out of the story as the journey into seedy melodrama deepens. Fauna's quest to find out who her real parents are brings her to the dark, shifty streets of Los Angeles, where the veneer of Hollywood glamour disguises a crime-ridden underbelly. The city is still haunted by and fascinated with the Black Dahlia case, the popular name for the murder in which Elizabeth Short was brutally disfigured, dismembered, and left by the side of a road by a person the authorities never caught. And Fauna learns that her own history is deeply tied to the one person who very well might have done it.

The show wants desperately to have its cake and eat it too: to treat Fauna's real-life story with sympathy and respect while also taking plenty of cues from the Los Angeles-set noirs popularized by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chris Pine's fictional washed-up reporter character Jay Singletary is introduced slinking along a beach, Hawaiian shirt open and blowing in the wind, to surreptitiously photograph a man having sex with someone who isn't his wife, or a woman having sex with someone who isn't her husband. Later, he dons a white hospital coat to sneak into a morgue and take photos of the disfigured corpse of a woman whose killer he wants to find. (Pine, in a few scenes, once again proves himself to be one of our finest physical comedy actors.) Singletary's hunger for the scoop sets him on a collision course with Fauna, and the reluctant companionship between the two adds a bit of a spark when the show starts to decline in its later episodes.

The thing, though, about the noir fiction books by Chandler and Hammett and their cohort that have become cornerstones of American literature and inspiration for countless other books, movies, and plays, is that they're meant to be entertainment. They're fiction, which saves them from having to be any more sympathetic to their characters and their victims than suits the story. I Am the Night doesn't have that luxury, and for all its slow-zooms onto Fauna's horrified face as revelation after revelation tears her life into bits, it almost feels cruel to dredge up this woman's story for the sake of turning it into a pulpy crime thriller.

It would be one thing for the show to invent a murder or series of murders to weave its plot around, but in its quest to use real historical events as a backdrop, it does its characters a disservice. This isn't Chinatown or Law & Order: SVU, whose crimes, though horrific and at times based on fact, are comfortably fictional. You see the photo of Elizabeth Short's body, surgically bisected, laid out among other photos of other mutilated women while a booming soundtrack pounds in the foreground. Jefferson Mays plays the mincing George Hodel -- the real illegal abortion doctor who was a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case -- like a Bond villain, appearing and disappearing out of nowhere and taking such glee from others' fear you half expect him to reach up and twirl his immaculate mustache.

It's the kind of dissonance we've already experienced in a similar way this year, with the trailer for Zac Efron's Ted Bundy movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile attracting no small amount of criticism for seeming to frame its handsome serial killer protagonist as a bad-boy Han Solo-type scoundrel who skipped around the cops and the law before he was finally sentenced for his numerous crimes. Thrillist critic Esther Zuckerman, in her review out of the Sundance Film Festival, writes that the filmmakers seem more enamored with Bundy's predatory magnetism than interested in shifting any focus toward his victims. In many ways, media like this seems to forget that people actually died, and the lives of those around the murder victims irrevocably altered. Watching it all play out on a television screen, no matter how well cast or handsomely directed, feels more ghoulish than fun.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.