A burnt-out journalist and an innocent teenage girl find themselves drawn into a web of murderous intrigue in , a moody, atmospheric miniseries from TNT that owes much of its tone to classic LA —and part of its plot, namely, to the infamous Black Dahlia murder. But anyone hoping for another lurid rehashing of that still-unsolved crime might be disappointed.
is as much about race, personal identity, and facing down one’s demons.
(Mild spoilers for pilot episode below.)
Chris Pine () shines here as Jay Singletary, a former Marine with PTSD who now scrapes out a dissolute living as a tabloid paparazzo. He used to be a legit journalist for the before his coverage of a 1949 indecency trial ended his career. A prominent real-life physician named George Hodel (Jefferson Mays, ) was accused of molesting his teenaged daughter and suspected of having committed the Black Dahlia murder. Thanks to Hodel’s powerful, well-connected friends, he was acquitted in the former and never charged with the latter.
“Some stories don’t want to be told. Some stories will eat you alive.”
Jay is seeking redemption of sorts by tracking down Hodel’s now-grown daughter, Tamar, for a follow-up story, hoping to prove the doctor’s guilt once and for all. “Some stories don’t want to be told,” Jay’s long-suffering editor, Pete Sullivan (Leland Orser, ), warns. “Some stories will eat you alive.” He would prefer Jay focus on the recent “Bloody Romeo” murder of a young woman.
Eventually, Jay crosses paths with 16-year-old Fauna Hodel (India Eisley, ), who has just arrived in LA after discovering she is George Hodel’s granddaughter. She’s been raised as Patricia Greenway in Sparks, Nevada, with a black family, and much of her story arc centers on trying to find her place as a mixed-race woman in a deeply segregated world. That involves getting to know her wealthy white biological family and hopefully tracking down her biological mother, the long-missing Tamar.
It might be surprising to see director Patty Jenkins returning to the small screen after her blockbuster success with , especially since she had to juggle making the miniseries around working on the sequel, . Jenkins told the recently about meeting the real Fauna Hodel years ago and reading her 2008 memoir, . (Jenkins’ husband, Sam Sheridan is one of the screenwriters who adapted Hodel’s book for .) Then Pine heard the story and told Jenkins, “You have to do that story. That story’s incredible!” He soon signed on to play Singletary, and here we are.
Longing to belong
The Black Dahlia case is one of the most gruesome unsolved murders in American history. On January 15, 1947, the mutilated body of a young woman was found in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The resident who discovered the body initially thought it was a mannequin, because it was severed at the waist into two pieces, with the lower half posed about a foot away from the upper half. (The crime scene photos are graphic and not for the faint of heart.) Chunks of flesh had been stripped away, the victim’s face was slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, and her intestines were neatly tucked under the body.
The body was soon identified as that of 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short. An autopsy showed evidence that Short had been restrained prior to her death, possibly raped, and likely died from loss of blood. Mercifully, the worst mutilation occurred after death. But the severing of her body had been done with a surgical precision—there’s only one spot on the body where this can be done without breaking bones—prompting speculation that the culprit had medical training. There was little forensic evidence otherwise, just a boot print at the scene and a bloodstained cement sack that may have been used to transport the body.
The LAPD launched a massive investigation that yielded almost 150 suspects, but no arrests were ever made. Countless books written since then claim to have solved the Black Dahlia case. One of the most notable was written in 2003 by Steve Hodel, a former LAPD detective and the son of the LAPD’s prime suspect: George Hill Hodel Jr., a wealthy Hollywood physician who was also suspected of having murdered his secretary. Steve Hodel put together a strong circumstantial case for his father’s guilt, but that’s not the same thing as definitive proof.
Still, the LAPD found a nude photo of Short in Hodel’s personal effects, suggesting she may have been one of his girlfriends. And a file on Hodel and the Black Dahlia murder unearthed in 2004 by the LA District Attorney’s Office revealed the LAPD had bugged the doctor’s private residence and had been preparing to charge him with murder in 1950, when Hodel fled the country for China. He died in 1999.
The Black Dahlia story inspired and informs , but the infamous cold case is only referenced briefly here and there, with no long flashback sequences to reveal sensational details. The show assumes the allegations against George Hodel are true, and it focuses on the personal implications of that over 15 years later for Fauna and Singletary, whose lives were both indelibly marked in different ways by those events.
Jenkins’ well-known attention to detail pays off spectacularly for . Apart from the period-accurate costuming, set design, and music, many of the historical details are intact. Jay Singletary is a fictional character, but the was a real tabloid that resorted to some shady tactics to get the scoop on Short’s family background when news of the murder broke. The real George Hodel lived in the famous Sowden House in Hollywood, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), and it provides a sumptuous backdrop for decadent parties in the miniseries. Hodel really was tried in 1949 for molesting his 14-year-old daughter Tamar and was acquitted.
Even the fictional Hodel’s love for surreal modern art has some basis in reality: Steve Hodel wrote that his father’s fascination with Man Ray (particularly the photographs and ) may have been an inspiration for the crime. That’s pure speculation, but the fact that Jenkins weaves those tiny details into her narrative fabric (there’s also a brief nod to Man Ray’s ) is a testament to her skill as a director.
Pine is a gifted actor who built his career playing (mostly) noble heroes and the occasional charming rake, and portraying the tormented, rather seedy Singletary really gives him a chance to show off his range. He’s helped by an equally gifted cast, including Eisley, who brings just the right note of tough vulnerability to Fauna. Jenkins takes her time setting things in motion, and that patience mostly pays off in the end. The real Fauna Hodel was diagnosed with cancer and tragically died just before the miniseries began filming in 2017. But I’d like to think she’d be pleased with how treated her story.
airs Monday nights on TNT through March 4, 2019.