DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday, the cable network TNT presents a six-part period mystery series called "I Am The Night." It reunites Patty Jenkins, who directed the hugely successful "Wonder Woman" movie, with Chris Pine, who portrays Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman's love interest, in that film and its forthcoming sequel. In "I Am The Night," Pine plays a washed-up newspaper reporter in 1965 Los Angeles. His latest assignment leads him eventually to a case involving dark family secrets, police corruption, high-society sexual scandals and several killings, including the still-unsolved case of the Black Dahlia Murder.
There actually are two stories told here, and they take quite a while to intersect. But both of them are intriguing. One is the more standard narrative of a reporter sniffing out a big story while finding more resistance and more questions at every turn. The other is about a teenage girl stumbling on a mystery of her own - one about her own identity and lineage. This is the part of "I Am The Night" that's the most compelling because it involves racial tensions and prejudices and a truly upsetting series of events and revelations and because, in its basic facts at least, her story is true.
As the miniseries begins, we meet a 16-year-old girl named Pat played by India Eisley. Pat lives in Nevada. And what she's about to discover is that almost everything she knows about her own life is a lie. Pat, who has light skin and blue eyes, identifies as biracial. She was raised in Nevada by her black mother and abandoned since birth by her white father, or at least that's what she's always been told. But one day, she finds a birth certificate in her mother's things which states that Pat's real name is Fauna, her unnamed father is black and her real mother is someone else - a white woman from Los Angeles with the last name of Hodel. The girl confronts her mother who admits to the deception. She's played by Golden Brooks.
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GOLDEN BROOKS: (As Jimmy Lee) But you know this - this is the important thing, OK? You look at me. Your white family - they're rich. Yeah, your grandfather is a famous doctor in Los Angeles. You're going to be rich one day, OK? So you keep that name. You keep that name legal - Fauna Hodel.
BIANCULLI: But if Pat is Fauna, then who is her real birth mother, and who was her father? Those questions and that quest take her to Los Angeles and her grandfather George Hodel. This is where things get really interesting and complicated and strange. Fauna Hodel actually existed. She wrote an autobiography about uncovering her family secrets. And her grandfather George, a prominent Los Angeles gynecologist, existed, too. In real life, he eventually became a prime suspect in the 1947 Black Dahlia case. And parts of this TV series are filmed in his actual former family home designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Family connections in this story are everywhere. Much of "I Am The Night," though, is imaginatively fictionalized. The showrunner and principal writer is mystery author Sam Sheridan, who also happens to be the husband of Patty Jenkins.
Their approach to this material is a sort of Kodachrome film noir. It has the color-saturated look of the '60s but has the narrative feel of an earlier era. It's Chinatown, Jake. And It's easy to imagine Chris Pyne getting inspiration from Jack Nicholson as he endures beating after beating and tries to separate fact from fiction in every conversation with a mysterious woman. In "I Am The Night," that role falls to Connie Nielsen who plays Fauna's grandmother. Director Jenkins has a shared past with her, too. Nielsen played the Amazon queen in "Wonder Woman." During a brief window between projects, Jenkins gathered her husband and two of her movie stars and made this mystery series for TNT, directing the first few episodes herself.
The parts of the TV drama that stick closest to the facts are the most satisfying. And the two lead performances are equally strong. Pyne gets to display signs of his talent he hasn't shown before. His reporter character may be noble at his core, but most of him is a mess. And India Eisley as Fauna changes in front of our eyes just like her character. By the end, she sees herself very differently, and so do we. These short-form miniseries are fast-establishing themselves as one of TV's best genres - HBO's "Sharp Objects," Showtime's "Patrick Melrose," FX's "Fargo." The TNT cable network might not be expected to be a player in those same major leagues. But now, thanks to "I Am The Night," it is.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, exploring the world beneath our feet. Dave Davies talks with journalist Will Hunt about his fascination with things below the surface of the earth. It's taken him into sewers and subway tunnels in New York, the catacombs of Paris, underground cities in Turkey, nuclear bunkers and abandoned mines and caves where ancient societies practiced religious rights. His new book is called "Underground." Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.