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I Am the Night (TNT miniseries) Movie Review

In January 1947, in a quiet residential neighborhood in the southern part of the city, Los Angeles police made a gruesome discovery: the dismembered body of a beautiful young woman. Her body parts were carefully posed, and the crime scene, though free of blood, made a horrific impression. The victim, aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, became known as the "Black Dahlia," and her murder remains famously unsolved. The noir-ready elements of Short's death - the tabloid-fodder crime scene photos, speculative rumors about her personal life, and the veritable rogues-gallery of colorful suspects - have kept authors and screenwriters busy for years.

The latest Hollywood take on the Black Dahlia is "I Am the Night," an eight-part miniseries that debuts January 28 on the TNT Network. The series uses the Dahlia murder as the launching point for a gorgeously staged exploration of mid-century Los Angeles as an embodiment of both the promise and decay of the post-war American dream. It's simultaneously a classic murder mystery, a fable of good versus evil, and a pointed cultural exploration, all wrapped in a delicious mélange of pop-culture elements backed by solid storytelling. Catch the pilot, and you're going to be signing on for the whole ride.

Director Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman") reunites with leading man Chris Pine ("Hell or High Water"), who's at turns dynamic and pitiable in his role as disgraced reporter Jay Singletary, a still-shaky Korean war vet who's haunted both by the men he killed in battle and the lurid murder case that derailed his once-promising journo career. He'll eventually find himself reengaged and navigating the ripples that are still spreading outward from the Dahlia case nearly 20 years later, but in the pilot Jay's a seedy stringer, sleeping off the latest hangover in his car and scraping together a living by catching starlets in compromising positions or sneaking into the morgue to grab lurid photos of murder victims.

Neither of them know it yet, but Jay is on a collision path with Fauna Hodel (India Eisley, "The Curse of Sleeping Beauty"), a teenager who abruptly discovers that everything she grew up believing about herself is a lie: her mother isn't her mother, and the mixed blood that has connected her to the black community might not be her true heritage either. Fauna flees her home in Sparks, Nevada on a quest to meet her mysterious grandfather, a famous doctor from a rich Los Angeles family. Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays, "Rebel in the Rye") is quirky and elusive, but is he dangerous? Jay Singletary certainly thinks so, and trying to prove it has ruined his life.

The premier episode of "I Am the Night" does a bang-up job of setting up this compulsively watchable series. By the end of this first hour we're invested in the lead characters and irresistibly curious about how and why their lives will intersect, and already feeling spoiled by the splendid cinematography that captures both the warm Betty Crocker-hued home interiors and the rain-slick, neon-spiked LA streetscapes with equal verve.

Strong performances are a hallmark throughout the series. While Mr. Pine never quite disappears into his role - there's always a small spark of modern sensibility that keeps him anchored in the 21st century - he throws himself wholeheartedly into the lead and plays it to the hilt, and he's willing to exchange his movie-star looks for the pasty skin, bloodshot eyes, and multi-day stubble of an equal-opportunity addict. As Fauna, Ms. Eisley is a find; though in her 20s, the actress is a believable teenager, and it's fascinating to watch her artful balance of fear and will as Fauna finds the threads of her mysterious background and stubbornly pursues her own origin story.
Mr. Mays plays his role as a canny homage to James Mason, borrowing the actor's signature intonation and sophisticated equanimity as a cloak to hide monstrous intentions. And seasoned character actor Leland Orser deserves special mention as Peter Sullivan, Jay Singletary's long-suffering editor. Mr. Orser's Sullivan meets up with Jay in smoky barrooms or convenient alleyways but he always looks like he just stepped out of a bustling 1950s newsroom, complete with battered fedora, and he absolutely nails the rhythm of the sparring conversational exchanges with his exasperating former star reporter. His brief scenes are such a pleasure that they're worth a second or third watch.

"I Am the Night" will certainly appeal to Dahlia aficionados. And genre fans will find much to enjoy here, from the "follow the clue" threads borrowed from classic and contemporary entries ("Chinatown" and "LA Confidential"? Check, and check) to the drool-worthy Los Angeles location shots (if "Night" doesn't put "buy a Pasadena mansion" on your bucket list, nothing will). Check out the pilot (1/28/19 on TNT, then on demand), then put it on your Monday night must-watch list for the next eight weeks. Whether it's "I Am the Night's" drama, eye-candy, or pulpy-in-the-best-possible-way storytelling that grabs you, you'll be in for a hell of a ride.



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