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Review: TNT’s ‘I Am the Night’ brings midcentury L.A. alive with a Black Dahlia mystery

Review: TNT’s ‘I Am the Night’ brings midcentury L.A. alive with a Black Dahlia mystery
India Eisley and Chris Pine in "I am the Night," TNT's serial killer drama. (TNT)

From the old-money mansions of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco to greasy-spoon diners in Burbank to landmark sites all over Black Dahlia-era Hollywood, Los Angeles and its lore play a starring role in TNT’s gripping period drama, “I Am the Night.”

Inspired by the true-crime memoir “One Day She'll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel,” the limited series is set in 1965, when mixed-race teen Fauna (India Eisley) discovers she’s adopted. The journey to find her biological family brings her to Los Angeles, where she happens upon a much deeper mystery with deadly implications.

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She learns that her grandfather Dr. George Hodel is a wealthy gynecologist — and the top suspect in the still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder. Fauna gets caught in a coverup that touches just about every Los Angeles institution, from the L.A. Times to the LAPD, while secrets about her lineage and her grandfather unfurl at a dizzying pace.

The six-part series, which starts Monday, has been the subject of much hype given that the executive producer and director of the first two episodes is the celebrated Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) and it stars A-lister/“Wonder Woman” lead Chris Pine, a co-executive producer. But “I Am the Night” is the rare case where the series actually lives up to the publicity buildup, establishing itself as a must-see TV drama in a crowded field.

The suspenseful series is driven by two mysteries — where does Fauna really come from, and is her grandfather the most infamous masked monster in the city’s history? But it also takes enough unexpected twists and turns through retro L.A. to keep viewers on their toes. Think of it as a joyride along Mulholland Drive with leaky brakes and someone else at the wheel. Along the way, however, each hour-long episode manages to artfully unpack meaningful issues about race and identity, wealth and privilege, drug addiction and postwar PTSD, weaving this heavier subject matter into the larger narrative.

Eisley and Pine (he plays down-on-his-luck journalist Jay Singletary) deliver inspired performances, infusing their characters with a depth and empathy that’s often lacking in murder mysteries. Jenkins brings Los Angeles to life in rich detail, capturing the inherent complexity of a city whose culture and breadth often get lost on screen.

Singletary is as multifaceted and run-down as DTLA. He’s an ex-L.A. Times reporter and Korean War vet whose writing career was all but ruined when he got too close to the truth reporting on the 1949 Dahlia murder. He’s now a stringer for the Examiner who specializes in paparazzi-like fare and copping drugs from his hooker friends.

Fauna’s arrival in L.A. reignites his passion to get to the bottom of the unsolved homicide, and it also highlights corruption within the LAPD. And boy are they rotten, especially if their target happens to be anyone who’s not wealthy and white.

Fauna knows first-hand what policing in the black community looks like. She grew up in an African American community where her mother worked as a housekeeper, and in L.A. resides with her aunt “Big Mama” and cousins on the “colored” side of town. It’s a region where law enforcement is the most dangerous element on the streets, and tensions are so high the city is ready to blow (the Watts Riots are just on the horizon).

The locations throughout “I Am the Night” are real spots Angelenos might recognize: the 1920s-era John Sowden "Jaws” House on Franklin Avenue that was designed by architect Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The midcentury L.A. here is a mix of faded glamour and gritty realism, pulling the story through private art galleries in San Marino and tiny, dilapidated California bungalows on the south side.

And of course, no period murder mystery in L.A. is complete without the faded glamour of Hollywood Boulevard, where fallen starlets and no-goods of all sorts congregate in the shadow of big picture studios. There are hints of “L.A. Confidential,” and every other noirish take on tinsel town, sprinkled throughout “I Am the Night.” These cigarette- and whiskey-saturated moments are animated reminders of a genre that’s also an integral part of our Southland DNA.

When Singletary is sober enough to make it to a meeting with his editor, he pitches the only story that keeps him going: solving the Black Dahlia murder. “Some stories don’t want to be told!” yells his grizzled editor. “Some stories will eat you alive!”

‘I Am the Night’

Where: TBS and TNT

Sneak peek: 7 p.m. Sunday

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Pilot: 9 p.m. Monday

Rated: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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