Just as Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine popped the self-serious bubble suffocating DC movies with “Wonder Woman,” the burgeoning duo elevates what could have been another bleak cable drama to pulpy, twisted fun.
Written by Jenkins’ husband Sam Sheridan (“Warrior”), TNT’s six-episode limited series “I Am the Night” has all the hallmarks of a made-to-order “prestige” period drama. Set in 1965, there’s a wayward girl in trouble, a suffering hero in need of redemption, and dismembered bodies that could somehow connect to a sex cult. Familiar and edgy, it’s a classic noir made for modern TV. (Did I mention the sex cult uses animal masks?)
TNT first resurrected the period crime genre with “The Alienist,” an outdated and needlessly grim adaptation that nonetheless proved successful. However, the network’s second attempt at a dark and gritty limited series is far more enticing through the pilot. Jenkins adds visual richness that separates her story from others like it. Sheridan’s script teases enough mystery to get your mind racing, and Pine’s bubbly performance keeps the miniseries’ premiere from being overwhelmed by the night.
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Pat (India Eisley) is a young girl not yet 18 who’s already working to support her family and aching to escape her small California town. Her mother Jimmy (Golden Lee) is a mean drunk, but she’s also hiding secrets that will send her daughter searching for a new family in Los Angeles.
Now, meet Jay (Chris Pine), a young man not yet 40 who’s already working to support his coke habit and aching to snort more coke alone in his car. His semi-casual drug habit makes him a bit temperamental, but he’s also mourning his crushed dreams — dreams that will send him searching for the truth about a weird, wealthy L.A. family (who just might be hosting orgies in their open-air mansion).
Our two protagonists are kept apart in the first hour, tied by nothing beyond their mutual dislike for people who think they’re superior. Pat faces them every day in the unchecked bigotry expressed by those who recognizes she’s multiracial (despite her pale complexion), while Jay vents his rage for empty fame by ignoring the pleas of a philandering actress he just photographed, and then beating the hell out of a phone booth when her weeping make him second guess trading those photos for money. (His temper could also be tied to that whole cocaine thing.)
“I Am the Night” isn’t subtle in developing its themes or characters. Race is addressed as bluntly as the accepted racism of the era, and class divides are illustrated by pristine mansions and messy apartments. Both Pat and Jay ask and answer big questions about themselves like, “Why am I here?” (a verbatim quote from Jay) and “I just want to know who I am” (an answer from Pat). They’re clearly meant to complement each other, and future episodes will no doubt highlight their shared interests and overlapping narratives.
But Sheridan’s story doesn’t need nuance to be effective. Complemented by David Lang’s driving score, Jenkins whips viewers through the introduction using searing frames with a pulse all their own and choice sliding shots that pull viewers closer to a faraway image, drawing them deeper into a dangerous world. (The series opens with a lengthy zoom through a seemingly vacant desert landscape into the back door of Pat’s hidden home.) She has a good time playing with light in a sea of shadows, just as Pine relishes every word in lines like, “If you’re feeling froggy [translation: “If you want to fight”], we can do this dance [translation: “we can fight”] — just pick a lily pad.” [translation: unknown]
In viewing just one of the six episodes, it’s impossible to say if the series’ many mysteries will pay off. Still, the team here does a fine job teasing them out. There’s Pat’s secret family, Jay’s spirit-crushing screw-up, and, of course, the pressing question of why people have to strap on super ugly masks to get in the mood. (OK, time to come clean: There’s no actual evidence of a sex cult in “I Am the Night.” There’s definitely a cult, or some kind of mask-wearing secret society, and given all the other weirdness going on — like the evil gynecologist’s creepy phone voice and the fact that the presumed villain is an evil gynecologist — it seems safe to assume some kinky stuff is coming.)
“I Am the Night” may be a little too formulaic to be TV’s next limited series with maximum impact — a la “Sharp Objects,” or what TNT really wants, another “True Detective” — but it’s well positioned to deliver the kind of entertainment that overly serious fare often overlooks.
“I Am the Night” premieres in January 2019 on TNT. The first episode premiered November 9 at the AFI Film Festival.