[Spoiler alert. Do not read on if you have not seen the first episode of HBO’s “The Night Of.”]
Courtroom dramas, police procedurals and prison thrillers are all well-trod television turf, but when they’re approached with superior degrees of intelligence and sophistication, they can still yield myriad riches. Such is the case with “The Night Of,” HBO’s superb limited series that doesn’t break new ground so much as it showcases a group of actors, writers and directors working at an exceptionally high level, merging potentially familiar genres into a thoroughly absorbing study of disparate characters brought together by a murder whose perpetrator remains a mystery.
HBO made the first seven installments of this eight-episode series available to critics, and while much remains uncertain about the story’s outcome, what’s clear is that creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price have fashioned a crime drama that values realism above all else, refusing to adopt a fashionably cynical outlook on our broken justice system but, instead, somberly detailing how cops, courts and prisons unconsciously conspire to grind down those who get ensnared in its webs.
Based on the BBC series “Criminal Justice,” “The Night Of” stars Riz Ahmed as Naz Khan, a mild-mannered Pakistani-American college student. He’s a good kid who still lives at home in Queens with his parents (Peyman Moaadi, Poorna Jagannathan), but one Friday night he impulsively takes his dad’s taxi to drive to a party, randomly encountering an edgy beauty named Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia). They spend the night bonding, getting drunk and high, and having sex, but when Naz wakes up the next morning with little memory of what happened, he discovers that Andrea has been murdered, brutally stabbed 22 times.
Later arrested and charged, Naz falls into the crosshairs of a sharp detective, Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who’s resolutely principled but also convinced that Naz did it. And he also meets John Stone (John Turturro), a bottom-feeding attorney who trolls the local jails looking for fresh clients. But John isn’t a sleazeball — one gets the impression he does this disreputable work mostly because he doesn’t believe he’s good enough for anything more prestigious — and he guides the frightened Naz through the prosecution process, concerned less with the kid’s innocence than if he can prove it in a court of law.
That’s merely the first episode, and from there “The Night Of” spirals outward, making room for a no-nonsense assistant district attorney (Jeannie Berlin), an idealistic young defense lawyer (Amara Karan) and a hardened criminal (Michael Kenneth Williams) who takes Naz under his wing once he lands at Rikers Island. The investigation into exactly what happened that night, as well as the preparations for the trial, propel “The Night Of,” but Zaillian (who directed seven of the eight episodes) and Price (who wrote or co-wrote all eight episodes alongside Zaillian) operate on a larger canvas, interested in the nuts-and-bolts machinations of a murder case, as well as the individual lives involved.
As a result, “The Night Of” is wholly engrossing, the showrunners creating multiple nuanced central characters. Even those assigned to take down Naz (who swears he couldn’t have committed this savage killing) are sympathetic and compelling, particularly Camp as the street-savvy Box, who masterfully questions eyewitnesses and appreciates the seriousness of his job, which can alter lives forever depending on whom he fingers for the crime. Box is perfectly complemented by the equally adept Stone, so it’s little surprise that the two men share a begrudging respect, seeing each other as a necessary adversary to ensure that both victims and defendants are well-represented.
In an ensemble that’s fairly magnificent from top to bottom, Turturro is the highlight, playing an ambulance-chasing lawyer who finally finds a case worthy of his dedication and empathy. The role originally belonged to James Gandolfini, but after his death, Turturro (a close friend of the late actor) stepped in, and that fact only adds another layer of sadness to a character already suffused with melancholy. Battling an embarrassingly chronic case of eczema on his feet, which forces him to wear open-toed sandals wherever he goes, Stone is a divorced, lonely man who seems physically and emotionally afflicted, his defense of Naz becoming a metaphoric last shot at redemption for a life that’s been filled with unspoken disappointments. Like much of the cast, Turturro is a terrific character actor who’s been given a substantial part that fully harnesses his talents, and he imbues Stone with a bittersweet beauty.
While Stone works to find the parties who may have killed this young woman, Naz bides his time in prison, and Ahmed deftly holds the character at arms’ length from us, never letting viewers be entirely confident that he didn’t, in fact, murder Andrea. “The Night Of” provides just enough subtle shading so that we see how certain moments from his past suggest a man capable of such a crime. Admittedly, Naz’s arc once he enters Rikers may be the most conventional of the series, going from naïve kid to Williams’ steely-eyed envoy, but Ahmed sells the transformation, illustrating how the prison system can create lifetime criminals, the toxicity of the institution infecting every new person who enters.
“The Night Of” tackles post-9/11 Muslim racism and the mania around high-profile murder cases, but Zaillian and Price aren’t primarily interested in political commentary. Instead they, like many of their characters, are committed to doing a job well. There are no good guys and bad guys on this brilliantly efficient show — merely people who have conflicting worldviews, from the weary veteran detective to the remorseless lifetime convict. We may not root for all of them, but we understand their motivations. Soon enough, it’s apparent why Stone professes not to care about Naz’s innocence — nothing in “The Night Of” is that black-or-white.