Movie stars just aren’t what they used to be. Such has been the case for years, as star personas have been overtaken by the even bigger global brands of overarching franchises and beloved stock characters. But for a while, at least, celebrities minted at the box office entered into a symbiotic relationship with a new medium. Actors needed the kind of showcase roles the likes of Untitled ’80s Video Game Rebooted With CGI Project weren’t giving them; television shows needed a secret weapon to help them break through the ever-increasing din. Thus Movie Star TV was born.
In just a few months, no less a deity than Meryl freaking Streep will augment the already blinding wattage of Big Little Lies. George Clooney’s Catch-22 adaptation will hit Hulu later this year. Mahershala Ali is currently sandwiching a volume of True Detective between two (probable) Oscar wins. Just this week, HBO announced yet another star-led limited series, Movie Star TV’s preferred template, this one headlined by Kate Winslet. Movie Star TV remains in full swing, yet there are also signs the phenomenon is starting to reach the same saturation point as the rest of television, and that movie stars themselves may no longer be the unbeatable attractions they were just a couple of years ago. For instance: TNT’s I Am the Night, a six-part limited series directed in part by the mastermind behind a nine-figure global hit, starring a Hollywood Chris with a prominent role in said global hit, is a perfectly watchable period piece—but not the must-watch destination it seems designed to be.
The Chris in question here is Pine, a.k.a. the Non-Marvel One, a.k.a. the Chronically Underrated One. After doing his own franchise stint with Star Trek as a younger, hotter Captain Kirk, Pine has spent the subsequent years splitting the difference between old-school stardom and a 2019 version of the same. He acted in an Oscar-nominated Western, but one about the foreclosure crisis. He played a historical Great Man for a biopic, but one distributed by Netflix. He popped up in a proper superhero flick, but as the surprisingly nuanced male love interest, content to play second fiddle to Gal Gadot’s Amazon warrior. (He’ll reprise the role in the Wonder Woman sequel, despite seemingly dying in the first film.) And now, he’s fronting a noir mystery that happily plays the capable cover band to Chinatown’s original hits—but over six hours on TV, not two at the multiplex.
Pine’s washed-up, wild-eyed investigator of choice is Jay Singletary, a Los Angeles journalist equally haunted by the murderer he failed to expose nearly 20 years before and PTSD from the war his failure drove him to enlist in. The year is 1965; Elizabeth Short, the 22-year-old victim now better known as the Black Dahlia, was killed in 1947 under circumstances that remain mysterious, with Jay shipping off to Korea just a few years after. I Am the Night’s favored suspect for Short’s death and mutilation is Dr. George Hodel, the Hollywood physician publicly tried for sexual abuse of his daughter Tamar in 1949. (Hodel’s own son Steve, a former LAPD homicide detective, has most prominently spoken out against him.) I Am the Night is adapted from One Day She’ll Darken, the memoir of George’s granddaughter Fauna, whom Tamar gave up for adoption and grew up in Nevada believing herself to be mixed race. Jay is an invention of screenwriter Sam Sheridan, though Fauna, played by India Eisley, shares his duties as protagonist once she arrives in L.A. to investigate her roots.
I Am the Night is not a rigorously accurate breakdown of a notorious crime, in the vein of the still-fruitful docuseries boom. On a smaller scale, Patty Jenkins—who helmed the first two of I Am the Night’s six episodes—and her fellow directors make ample use of the striking Sowden House, the Mayan-inspired Hollywood mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s eldest son. But while the opportunity to film there may have been too good to pass up, Hodel owned the residence from only 1945 to 1950, a full 15 years before the setting of I Am the Night and its many scenes shot at Sowden. On a larger scale, the show freely speculates Hodel was involved in all kinds of unsavory activities, up to and including the occult. It’s the kind of story that’s possible only once a death removes the possibility of a libel suit.
If not a factual investigation, I Am the Night is mostly meant as a vehicle for Pine, who’s afforded many opportunities to righteously scream at his editor and fend off Fauna’s would-be attackers. The problem, if not an unusual one in an image-obsessed industry, is that a strapping blond leading man seems more-than-slightly miscast as a grizzled shell of a person meant to be so over the hill he’s halfway to the Pacific. One of the first things we hear another character say of Jay, chasing down a starlet in his demoted role as de facto paparazzo, is “Has he ever walked on a beach before?” Directed at a near-shirtless, short-shorts-clad Pine, it’s not the most convincing bit of exposition in the world. As she demonstrated in Wonder Woman, Jenkins is adept at making Pine look as good as he actually does. Here, it’s just more of a handicap than an advantage.
Such hurdles aside, I Am the Night is a mostly enjoyable, if boilerplate, riff on the midcentury Los Angeles mystery. As someone who could happily toggle between The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice for the rest of my viewing life, that’s hardly a criticism. But it is striking to register what I Am the Night is not: the kind of inescapable major event its star-director combo would have made it by default just a few years ago. Even a true-crime hook as juicy as the Black Dahlia is no longer enough to merit placement on a prestige network like HBO, despite existing within the same corporate family. Both HBO and TNT are wings of WarnerMedia, the sprawling media conglomerate now under the even more sprawling corporate umbrella of AT&T; so is Warner Bros., the film studio presiding over Wonder Woman. Placement on either network would make I Am the Night an act of corporate synergy. Grouping it with basic-cable crime dramas like Animal Kingdom and Claws just gives a different, if more accurate, impression than doing so with Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects.
So far the numbers, too, bear out this impression. I Am the Night’s premiere received less than a million same-day viewers, a metric that doesn’t include DVR viewings or a post–SAG Awards preview broadcast, but nevertheless indicate the show is headed for a decent-if-not-breathtaking reception among audiences as well as critics. Pine remains a draw, just not an overwhelming one. Los Angeles is an unforgiving town, as Jay already knows and Fauna learns all too quickly. Nothing is for certain, not even the power of stardom.