Dark silhouettes meeting in an alleyway against the smoky, rain-soaked streets. A web of crime leading to the dark, seedy underbelly of a city. An unstable anti-hero with a troubled past. Cynicism and moral ambiguity. These are the motifs of film noir. TNT’s new miniseries, “I Am the Night,” takes generous inspiration from the noirs of old. However, as mysterious and hard-boiled as “I Am the Night” is, the secrecy often leads to confusion.
Inspired by Fauna Hodel’s memoir, “One Day She’ll Darken,” “I Am the Night” follows a young, mixed-race girl (India Eisley, “Kite”), first introduced as “Pat,” who discovers her real name is Fauna Hodel, and that the woman who has been taking care of her is not her mother. After finding out that her real grandfather is Dr. George Hill Hodel (Jefferson Mays, “Inherent Vice”) — a scandalous doctor involved in an incest case — she seeks to find out who she really is.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, washed up ex-LA Times reporter Jake Singletary (Chris Pine, “Wonder Woman”), spends his time picking fights, doing coke and taking exploitative photographs. Then, at the moment he was considering suicide, he gets an anonymous tip on Dr. George Hill Hodel — the mysterious subject of the article that got him ostracized from the LA Times.
“I Am the Night” has a clear mystery on its hands: Who is Fauna and what did Jake Singletary get wrong about Dr. Hodel? But also present are mysteries inherent in the characters’ motivations. Jake is not the best person. But why? Is it because he was fired from the LA Times? Is he damaged from serving in the Korean War? Is it disillusionment from his string of dead-end jobs? It’s not apparent. The same goes for Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks, “Girlfriends”). Why does she pretend to be Fauna’s mother? Jimmy Lee delivers an incredible monologue about how her dreams were dashed when she made a drunken promise and ended up stuck with a white woman’s child. She goes on about the difficulty of raising a mixed child who she cannot relate to. Yet, Jimmy Lee is terribly cruel to Fauna. The viewers have no reason to suspect her motives for this behavior are anything other than frustration with being stuck with Fauna. And still, it doesn’t seem like a good enough explanation. There must be something else there.
The show doesn’t nail the dialogue — most of it is very awkward or unproductive. But, there are a number of things this show does well. The acting is incredible; the stars breeze through the show’s ineffective moments with grace.
Another thing worth noting is the atmosphere of the show. The ambience — and it very much is an ambience — is well-curated. The show’s ’60s feel is authentic and attractive. Imagery fundamental to the noir genre, rainy days in the city and eerie neon reflections, pop onscreen. An incredible jazz soundtrack by David Lang (“Wildlife”) engulfs the story in a dark and brooding aura.
Much of what “I Am the Night” does well are the standards of dark mysteries. The show is very good at piecing together the classic images of noir — like a polished version of “Chinatown.” Unfortunately, “I Am the Night” has failed to prove itself unique thus far. Underdeveloped characters, a thick and muddy plot and clunky dialogue weigh this down — not to mention the neglect of the mixed-race experience. To be fair, the ending of the episode did leave a fair amount of mystery yet to be unveiled. It’s possible the show could overcome the stumbles. As of right now, “I Am the Night” leaves it viewers too far in the dark.