First episode impressions: ‘I Am the Night’ (TV review)

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NT found a nice way to ride the success of a series without forcing it beyond the natural end of its storyline. “The Alienist” – my No. 4 show of 2018 — became a critical and popular success a year ago, but it told a complete serial-murder mystery. That series is over, but TNT is continuing its Suspense Collection with “I Am the Night” (9 p.m. Eastern Mondays).

Director/producer Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) and writer Sam Sheridan take us to the midcentury West and into the lives of two fascinating characters. Eventually, this narrative will somehow tie into the Black Dahlia murder that took place not long before, but you’d only know that from reading about the show.

Pat (India Eisley) is a mixed-race teen in Sparks, Nev. Her mother is black, her boyfriend is black, she’s shunned by some black classmates, and she’s shunned by white classmates. Sheridan, working from the real-life story of Fauna Hodel from her 2008 memoir, illustrates Pat’s harrowing life. A new girl asks to sit at her lunch table, Pat says she’s welcome to, but then a white girl warns the newcomer that that’s the Negro table. “I’ve never seen one with green eyes before!” the newbie remarks, with Pat still in earshot.

Eventually, this narrative will somehow tie into the Black Dahlia murder that took place not long before, but you’d only know that from reading about the show.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine, Captain Kirk from the new “Star Treks”) is a hard-luck investigative journalist who freelances for the Examiner, one of those grocery-store tabloids. He used to be an up-and-comer for the LA Times, but as Examiner editor Peter (Leland Orser) notes, he was broken by a story that didn’t want to be told.

Pine is wonderful in this role of a man who doesn’t know where he went wrong – was it from trying to hard or not trying hard enough? While there’s nothing funny about him toying with suicide in his apartment, Jay finds his own life hilarious, as if he’s an outside observer to it. Trapped in a morgue drawer, he laughs at the notion that his career has come to this, and the laughter gets him caught.

So far, Eisley (bidding to join Shailene Woodley as a star who started on “Secret Life of the American Teenager”) is playing things closer to the vest, and we sympathize with Pat because of her situation – caught between races, and not knowing what to make of a mother, Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), who has raised her but also acts like she hates her. As the pilot episode progresses, Pat learns she was adopted, and that her real name is Fauna Hodel.

And that story that broke Jay? It was his investigation into Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), Pat’s biological grandfather, who lives in a stunning mansion where he throws lavish parties.

The last segment of the pilot – in which these threads begin to coalesce — gives us the dark, neon-tinged streets of LA we’d expect from a series called “I Am the Night.” Before that, the show is surprisingly sunny. The production design is impeccable. I love spending time in the 1960s church-run hospital ward, with its file drawers of typewritten records.

“I Am the Night” is another of those slow-burn mystery series – so slow-burn in this case that we barely know what the mystery is after one hour. But it’s only six episodes long, so things should pick up soon. Even with the plot points being leisurely dealt out, the pilot episode held my attention thanks to the fascinating lives of Pat and Jay. It’ll be interesting to see them meet next week.