In the wake of HBO’s recent drama woes — the flop that Vinyl proved to be, losing several high-profile dramas from their slate, and the problems with True Detective Season 2 and beyond — the premium channel must be hanging its hat on the hope of The Night Of. The limited series, based on a British series called Criminal Justice, has been in development hell for years, with its most major setback coming after the death of then-star James Gandolfini (who still holds a posthumous executive producer credit). The intricate limited series is the kind of serious drama HBO used to churn out without effort, and yet now feels like something of a rare bird. But is it really a great series, or are we just desperate to see HBO return to form?
It feels necessary to say that my initial impressions of HBO’s The Night Of may be colored by the fact that I binged the 7 episodes provided (of an eventual 8) in two days. While some short crime series (like Netflix’s engrossing Marcella, also 8 episodes) beg for binge watching, The Night Of falls into the same category as FX’s The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story — i.e. the anti-binge.
Like American Crime Story, The Night Of starts with a murder, and investigates every aspect of what happens afterwards. Some parts are more compelling than others, but the series — written by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh — is dogged in its desire to show the most grim and dour aspects of the institutions that a suspect is subjected to on a nightmarish journey.
Knowing that this is a crime story gives The Night Of’s first episode an incredible degree of tension, as Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a smart, doe-eyed college student, makes a series of increasingly terrible decisions. Nasir takes his father’s taxi from Queens without permission to go to a party in Manhattan, and every stop, everyone he talks to, and everything he touches becomes, for watchful viewers, part of some future evidence against him. When a girl (Andrea, played by Sofia Black D’Elia) gets into his cab thinking he’s a real cabbie, he decides to take her around town, embarking on a night that starts out innocently, but starts to spin out of control once drugs and alcohol are introduced. Once Naz wakes up in Andrea’s kitchen later and goes upstairs to find her brutally stabbed to death, the real story begins.
That story introduces John Tuturro as Naz’s unexpected attorney John Stone, Bill Camp as Detective Box (who isn’t sure Naz killed Andrea but can’t ignore the overwhelming evidence), as well as Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan as Naz’s suffering parents. Once things move from the police precinct to the jail, HBO regular Michael K. Williams appears as a powerful inmate who offers Naz protection, and Amara Karan’s Chandra takes over Naz’s trial, as viewers get a glimpse into the strategies of both the prosecution and the defense.
Again, like American Crime Story, The Night Of is only partially about the potential perpetrator of the crime (Naz fell asleep and can’t remember what happened — viewers don’t know, either), and instead focuses a great deal on a surly but sympathetic attorney. Turturro absolutely steals the show as a down-on-his luck lawyer of a kind of Saul Goodman variety (though with much more muted colors and a less bombastic personality), whose problems with his rampant eczema are somehow the series’ most compelling mystery.
While there is a fair amount of gallows humor (which a show as dark as this desperately needs and smartly uses), The Night Of can be a slog when taken as a whole. The series is crafted very deliberately to focus in on minutia. It’s frustrating, and it’s meant to be. The score is minimalistic, and Naz’s journey through a variety of institutions is fraught with bureaucratic procedure. There’s nothing off-the-rails about this murder story (like many current crime dramas), and it’s not sensationalized. Even the character names are monosyllabic: Khan, Box, Stone, Crowe. There are lingering shots of building facades, of fixtures and of ordinary objects, all of which serve to really hone in (thanks too to the overwhelming grayness of the color palette) on a sense of gritty, New York-flavored malaise.
Like the prosecution’s case against Naz, there are issues with the narrative in a number of major places, including Andrea’s shallow characterization as a druggy femme fatale, and Naz’s incredibly fast and ill-conceived (and never addressed) transition into prison life full of visible tattoos and murderous hits. (At times, the series feels like a very long episode of Law & Order). But the whodunnit aspect of it isn’t the kind of compelling crime mystery that propels so many other, similar series, largely because The Night Of isn’t really a crime drama at all — it’s a legal procedural. Fans of crime drama (of which I am one) will be looking to be fascinated by the detective work, but in The Night Of it oddly falls to Stone in his diligence over the case rather than any of the actual detectives.
That, and Stone’s uncertainty (but desperate desire) in trying a murder case at all gives The Night Of the boost it needs to make it interesting, since the show itself isn’t as interested in the events of that night so much as how they are perceived by others (the police, the community, the jury). As Naz is told early on, “we’re way past the truth.” The idea that it doesn’t matter is the show’s most damning judgement of the judicial system. So while Naz owns the premiere, after that, it becomes Stone’s story. Whether or not Naz committed the crime is less important than whether or not Stone (and Chandra) can convince the jury of his innocence. That process, laboriously slow and detailed as it is, isn’t something to rush. But it is worth investigating.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Well-crafted TV
The Night Of premieres Sunday, July 10th on HBO.