Could I Am The Night have been a movie?
I don’t ask this question lightly. One of its strengths of this miniseries, as I’ve written throughout its run, is that it’s refreshingly well-paced for television. It’s not excessively ponderous. In each episode, things happen, which both advance the plot and serve as entertainingly strange little set-pieces in and of themselves.
This isn’t necessarily the norm for prestige cable dramas, to keep the story moving so briskly. It’s especially welcome given that I Am The Night’s core creative team comes primarily from film. Producer-director Patty Jenkins’s most relevant prior TV credit is The Killing—a notoriously poky show.
But after the disappointing series finale “Queens Gambit, Accepted,” I can’t help but wonder whether it would’ve been possible to cobble together the high points of I Am The Night—the freaky art shows, the pulpy “journalism noir” scenes, and Chris Pine’s performance—into a feature-length film that keeps George Hodel as the villain but only has Fauna as a minor character. Because let’s face it: Writer-producer Sam Sheridan never solved his Fauna Hodel problem.
I Am The Night is nominally based on the late Hodel’s memoir One Day She’ll Darken, which is why the miniseries is framed as her story. But it’s not her story. It’s only barely related to the narrative in One Day She’ll Darken. Aside from a scene or two, and aside from the basic facts of Fauna’s life—that she was given away at birth to a black woman in Nevada, raised as biracial, and later found out about her real family’s scandalous part when she went looking for her biological mother, Tamar—I Am the Night either ignores or grossly distorts its source material.
It also wildly fabricates incidents, to an extent that borders on the irresponsible, given that a lot of people who watch this show won’t know anything about the real Fauna Hodel, and will come away thinking she was actually abducted and nearly murdered by her own grandfather/father. None of that happened.
It might’ve better if Sheridan had ditched the book altogether. This becomes especially obvious in the finale, which tries (and largely fails) to pay off what’s been the weakest element of I Am The Night’s premise: Fauna’s search for self.
“Queens Gambit, Accepted” goes full-out in giving Fauna a big finish, while mostly sidelining Pine’s character Jay Singletary. Beginning with a flashback to George Hodel as a boy in 1917 (where he’s criticized by a piano teacher for playing “without emotion”), this episode belatedly scrambles to make its bad guy less of a mysterious monster and more of a pathetic creep, so as to give Fauna’s ultimate triumph more oomph. The finale builds to a long climax, where the heroine’s held against her will by George, who plans to paint her and then, presumably, slaughter her. Not only does she escape him, she belittles him, saying his philosophies of life, art, and murder are “boring,” and—even worse—“kitsch.”
At its best, this episode has a dark Alice In Wonderland quality. Fauna visits Corinna, who gives her some spiked lemonade; and then she wakes up in the Hodel house, where she’s forced to endure the blustery pontification of a mad aristocrat. George shows her what looks to be a Mark Rothko painting, which he’s not sure he likes. And he compares his sexual and masochistic body-warping exercises to the surrealists, saying that he’s “traveled as far from them as a star from a worm.”
That’s when she starts laying into him, in a big speech that comes off flat and phony. As has often been the case with her character in I Am The Night, Fauna’s ideas don’t really sound like her own. She’s not wrong to say that George doesn’t really understand art, and that he’s embarrassing himself by passing off his perverse sexual desires as some kind of genius. But just as with her pushback against Corinna a few episode ago, this complex analysis of art, history, and human nature comes out of nowhere.
Meawhile, as Fauna’s wriggling free from a trap, the episode attempts to build tension with a couple of subplots. The first involves Jay (remember Jay?) trying to talk his way out of imprisonment himself, by persuading the LAPD that their benefactor George Hodel is a murderer. He offers the thuggish Detective Billis a deal: He’ll take the fall for a major unsolved case, if Billis will cut him loose long enough for him to kill George.
For a time, it looks like Jay’s going to arrive just in time to save Fauna—even if he has to fight off three cops to slip away. Instead, she ends up handling George without him, leaving him raving mad that once again he’s been denied the chance to bring his nemesis down.
The other subplot involves the 1965 Watts riots. And as with nearly everything else related to racial strife in I Am The Night, this particular storyline is more of a background element than a story-driver. It’s “the tension in the air” throughout the hour, allowing for some ominous shots of smoke on the horizon (seen through the window of Hodel’s home, even) and armored-up cops marching through the streets, as well as adding an element general confusion that aids Jay’s escape.
It’s easy to imagine to imagine a shorter version of I Am The Night—like a two hour and fifteen minute film, say—where the explosiveness of the Watts riots, coinciding with the George/Fauna standoff and Jay’s last big push for justice, would really pop, dramatically. But it all feels forced here. So does the sentimental denouement, where Fauna wishes Jay peace and tells him to keep in touch. The downside to this miniseries spending much of its first five hours focusing on an ex-marine muckraker’s emotional torment is that everything non-Jay-related feels like an afterthought.
Look, it’s not easy doing this kind of James Ellroy/Michael Connelly/Walter Mosley L.A. noir well, with all of its narrative threads, sociopolitical undercurrents, and hard-boiled characters. The people making I Am The Night had an unmistakable passion for this project, along with some great ideas and a real feel for the genre.
But as was evident from episode one, they were also loading the moody, sprawling ‘60s crime saga they clearly wanted to make into an inadequate vessel: the adaptation of a memoir that has little to nothing to do with murders, conspiracies, and abstract art. For the most part, this show was passionate enough and weird enough that it was worth watching, if only to see if it’d blossom into something special by the end. It didn’t.
Sheridan and company seized an opportunity to make something they believed in, but couldn’t wrangle it into the right form. Frustrated by how this miniseries played out? Forget it, Jay. It’s I Am The Night.
- I look forward to seeing India Eisley in some other movie or TV show, because she has a memorable screen presence, and I want to believe she’s not a bad actress, but was instead badly misused. Evidence of the latter: Connie Nielsen, who has a strong track record on the big screen, looked a little lost at times as Corinna; and Jefferson Mays (a Tony-winner!) wasn’t exactly at his best either. Only Chris Pine and Leland Orser really came off well, in pretty every scene they were in. I Am The Night offered something of an acting challenge it seems: to play a mix of stylized, over-the-top eccentricity and deep personal pain.
- I finished One Day She’ll Darken, which sort of trickles to a close. The big moment arrives toward the end of the book, when Fauna follows up on her phone call with Tamar by actually traveling to Hawaii and having a long conversation with her. There’s more detail about that chat in the book than there is in the TV version, with Tamar saying that while her father did impregnate her, that fetus was aborted. Fauna arrived at the end of several years of sordid sexual affairs and outright assaults by other men (not George). Also, the Black Dahlia barely comes up in One Day She’ll Darken. Hodel writes more about her love/hate relationship with Jimmie Lee. The series’ odd little coda, with Fauna talking about her adult life and identity being “something I chose,” is in line with how the book ends. Honestly, I think I preferred the nutsy quasi-detective show that I Am The Night is to a straight adaptation of what is, overall, a pretty dry memoir. But I still think Sheridan and company did a disservice to the real Fauna Hodel, who fought for much of her adult life to get her story told, over the objections (and the legal threats) of George Hodel. This miniseries is not that story. It’s a shame.