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I Am The Night - Pilot - Review - Stories You Can't Tell

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Although it is based on a true story, I will not be reviewing I Am The Night in terms of how it compares to events that inspired it or speculating when real-life details might be worked into the show. This is not a documentary.

Directed by Monster’s Patty Jenkins and starring Hell or High Water’s Chris Pine, I Am The Night is a sleek noir homage peppered by questions of identity. This first episode introduces two searching souls fated to cross paths, thanks to a mutual acquaintance who might just be a serial killer. But perhaps even scarier for the characters are parts of themselves they haven’t discovered yet. The opening scene sets this tone by following one of the main characters, Pat Lee, from behind, as she prepares to leave for school. Her mother fusses with her hair and cautions her to behave well at school. A joke from her mother about how Pat won’t be acting up because she’s different, as in smarter, than her classmates prompts this response.
“I want to be normal. Just like everyone else. Just like you.”
And actress India Eisley turns to face the camera for the first time. You don’t hear a violin screech, but you’re meant to feel it. Pat Lee’s eyes are blue. And the moment is presented with a touch of horrific revelation. It's a bit humorous, in the darkest of ways.

Pat herself is more concerned with the fact a strange white man appears to be spying on her now and then. This and her blue eyes are a big deal because Pat lives in an African-American community. She has been told that she’s mixed race by her mother, and she is able to mostly ignore comments from other black girls that she is “light-skinned.” However, two incidents prompt her to start wondering about her other heritage. First, a new girl at school asks to sit at her table. The look of astonishment that unscrolls across Eisley’s face is the first of many subtlely devastating moments in the episode. See the new girl is white. Thanks to a little thing called racism she would never in a million years sit down with Pat, except that she thinks Pat is white. A Teenage Blonde Awful™ corrects the newcomer, and Pat is left unsettled. The second incident is worse. She walks home from her hospital janitorial job with her boyfriend Lewis, and the police pull them over to accost and rough up Lewis for walking with a white girl. Pat has to repeatedly explain she’s black too, before they are allowed to go on their way. Combined, both these occurences produce an uneasiness in Pat.
When Pat does arrive home, she’s greeted by her mother, who is drunk and furious. This pilot episode is anchored by three remarkable performances, and the second of these is Golden Brooks’s Jimmie Lee. She viciously reprimands Pat the way only a mother can. Her angry denouncement of Pat’s innocent dreams is especially spiteful. “Stars and love and Lewis Ferguson!” Brooks spits out these words that could just be mean if not for the heartbreaking tremble that underlines them. But her repeated references to how choosing Pat meant giving up her own dreams cuts deeper than Jimmie intends. That night, Pat sneaks into her mother’s room to look for clues to her identity. She finds her birth certificate, except it can’t be hers. For one thing, it lists that her father was black and her mother was white. For another, the name on the certificate is Fauna Hodel. The following scene with Pat confronting her mother and learning that she is Fauna (“That stupid fairytale name.”) is more extraordinary work from Brooks. And Eisley hits the right notes with how dumbfounded Pat/Fauna is at these revelations.
As Pat’s life unravels, we meet Chris Pine’s Jay Singletary. He was a journalist once, a card-carrying reporter for the LA Times. You wouldn’t know it at first, as Singletary is introduced scrambling to capture some seedy paparazzi photos on a beach. Then he’s snorting coke in his car. Pine plays this role so that there’s a feverish desperation around the edge of his character. It’s present when Singletary toys with the idea of not turning in the photos, after only half-listening to his editor gush about the tabloid scandal it will be. His editor reacts with quite the tirade, and Singletary quickly caves. He doesn’t have the spirit for a conflict. But the situation sends him to a friend to ask for another kind of story, anything slightly more interesting. Turns out a particularly gruesome corpse was recently discovered. That might be something. It might even be “really something.”
The next scene juxtaposes Fauna searching the hospital in Sparks, Nevada where she works for her birth records and Singletary sneaking into a hospital in Los Angeles to photograph the body. Their separate quests have very different outcomes. Fauna finds her grandparents’ contact information and makes a phone call. Her mother previously told her that her biological grandfather was an important, rich doctor. Her grandfather Dr. George Hodel is who answers the phone. He is cautiously polite to her, though his warning that she shouldn’t contact her birth mother Tamar because it would be “distressing” has a slightly odd tone to it. He invites her to visit if she’s ever in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Singletary finds the corpse in question. We only see a brief awful glimpse, as the scene relies on Pine’s reactions to sell how disturbing this is. Crime shows like to linger on a mutilated body, so the restraint shown here was tasteful. When some detectives enter the morgue, Singletary is forced to hide in a morgue drawer. He gets locked in, slightly panics, and drops his lighter. At which point, he laughs and laughs, only to be promptly pulled from the drawer and beaten up by the detectives. The joy Chris Pine exudes in this scene is somehow perfect for the situation.
That brings us to Fauna receiving very distressing news. A nun hurries up to her and tells her that her mother has died. It’s unexpected, upsetting, and a bit overdramatic. Which is why viewers will feel the exact smoldering fury that Fauna does when she rushes home and discovers her mother pranked her. Jimmie Lee laughs and says that she wanted Fauna to know what it was like to have everything taken away from you in a moment. Wanted her to feel that emptiness and grief. In the history book of bad ideas, this one gets at least a paragraph. Fauna packs her suitcase and leaves town. (She only plans to be gone a week.) Fauna’s departure prompts Jimmie to make a surprising phone call. She calls up Jay Singletary (interrupting him pondering suicide while going through withdrawal) and tells him he was right all those years ago about Dr. Hodel. She tells him to keep looking. A quick flash of some old headlines reveal that Hodel was acquitted of a presumably very awful crime back in the day. That was the story that pushed Jay off the edge. And now he’ll get a second crack at it.
Fauna arrives in Los Angeles and repeatedly telephones Dr. Hodel. A woman takes a message, saying he’ll call back. Finally, as she’s all alone at a dimly lit bus stop, Fauna calls Dr. Hodel’s wife/her step-grandmother. We don’t see this woman’s face, but she tells Fauna her grandfather is dangerous and that she should stay away. We change scene to a bizarre, gaudy party being held at a strange mansion. At the center of it is the mansion’s owner, a small mustached man with air of self-importance. This is Dr. Hodel, the key figure in Fauna and Jay’s mysterious pasts. And so the episode ends with this noisy contrast to the quiet settings the rest of the episode has explored. I declare it to be a sufficiently eerie start to the story.

Setting aside any historical knowledge, we’re left with a number of questions. What were Hodel’s crimes? Why did he approach Fauna at the bus stop? Who is the man trailing Fauna, and why is he trailing her? What does Hodel’s wife know? Why didn’t Hodel want Fauna to contact Tamar? How will Jay and Fauna’s paths cross? This pilot episode also sets up some bigger, long-term questions as to what the main characters’ fates will be? Will Jay find closure and a new beginning in pursuing this story? Will Fauna choose to return home? With a show like this, you can count on the show not being about whether or not justice will be served. It’s about what happens to Jay and Fauna. So far, with the superb casting, viewers will care about these characters. And that’s the most important part of a pilot, selling the protagonists.

Until next week, let’s speculate on why the title “I Am The Night” was chosen. I suspect it wasn’t a tribute to Darkwing Duck, but it makes me think of that character’s iconic “I am the terror…” speech.

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