HBO’s The Night Of: Riveting, Indispensable Drama

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Law enforcement and the American criminal justice system have long been popular targets for fiction writers of all stripes. It makes sense. If a creator wants something that will resonate, authority figures make excellent villains. We’ve all had some moment with a police officer or other official. For me, it was receiving a speeding ticket the year after I graduated high school. Why would that stand out? That citation was for driving 48 in a 45 mile-per-hour zone. I’ve never forgotten it, and neither would you.

One challenge in telling a good crime story is in finding a way to complete the job with a discernible difference from everything that came before. We’ve seen phenomenal police dramas, from The Shield to NYPD Blue to American Crime to Southland. We’ve seen crime dramas like The Wire, which tell a political and socially conscious story about the boys and girls in blue as well. Often, these realities result in storylines that rely too much on twists or outlandish elements rather than a compelling narrative. It’s why a showrunner like Nic Pizzolatto would go as far as he did to tell his story of manifested evil incarnate in the first season of True Detective. The supernatural teases, the occasionally loopy dialogue, and the off-kilter style of shooting, all of it was there to, in addition to other things, generate something unique.

When it comes to HBO’s riveting new limited series, The Night Of, which premiered Sunday night, creators Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster) and Richard Price (The Wire, The Color of Money) had source material to draw from in the form of Peter Moffat’s BBC effort, Criminal Justice, which aired in 2008 and 2009. The first season of Moffat’s show provides the blueprint for what you’ll see for the rest of the summer, as both focus on a young man accused of murder after an unfortunate night and a chance meeting that leads to an alcohol and drug fueled evening of sex and bad decisions.

As you watch “The Beach,” pay close attention to your own emotions, because what’s almost instantly apparent is how poorly the situation at hand is going to get. You can see everything coming before it actually happens, outside of the graphic nature of the crime itself. Every action Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) takes, from the minute he decides to borrow his father’s taxicab in order to attend a party he feels he can’t miss, is problematic. He makes mistakes, but watch with the knowledge of what’s on the way, and you can see him in trouble before the trouble actually arrives. Where he finds himself, the circumstances that place him there, who he’s with and when, those he encounters along the way, and his reaction early on October 25, 2014, all look absolutely terrible for his prospects once everything goes to hell.

The series tells the murder story, but is just as concerned with examining the failings of the justice apparatus, particularly as it applies to various cultural groups and classes. In the 78-minute first episode, however, the issues at play are much more subtle. This isn’t as simple as not following Miranda laws or denying phone calls and a chance to speak with a lawyer. The police in our story attempt to coax Naz, because they can see his inexperience and also how frightened he is of his new predicament. Detectives and officers talk to him and try to tell him about how certain things he accepts or refuses will play in court, once he reaches the trial stage. He listens to them, because he’s naïve and doesn’t recognize or fully understand the value in remaining silent.

Naz is likable very quickly, but he’s also flawed and prone to do stupid things, which is the kind of thing that ensures every theory of the crime points directly at him, and believably so. Things get much more elaborate as the series moves on, but in tonight’s episode, it’s hard to fault the logic of the NYPD, and in particular Dennis Box (Bill Camp), the detective assigned to the case. Khan looks guilty and although he repeatedly says he didn’t do it, he admits to being with the victim, having consensual sex with her in the hours before her death, and even fleeing the scene after waking up to find her savagely stabbed to death in her upstairs bedroom.

HBO desperately needed another good drama to keep the network strong coming off Game of Thrones and in the months before Westworld debuts. Luckily, though it took them four years to finally get it on the air, it’s here. What you liked about True Detective is here. What you didn’t like isn’t. What was weird…also isn’t. From a purely emotional standpoint, there’s far more depth to this story, and the way Zaillian and Price unfold their story is hauntingly fabulous. It’s not an easy watch, and the series seems to slow down at the most painful moments, emphasizing them and pushing the audience further down the hole. They want you to feel the knife going into your own chest as you see Nasir Khan’s life change forever.

When the credits finally roll on “The Beach,” expect to want to drive to New York yourself and help Naz, because you know what no other character on the show does, and thus it’s tough to see him trapped. However, one thing The Night Of doesn’t do early is give an alternate theory of the crime or even explain what might have happened while Naz slept. Once the sex ends, we see Naz wake up at the kitchen table, walk upstairs, and find the girl murdered. Complicating matters is the strange pill she gave him with the smiley face on it, the cocaine she gave him, and the tequila coursing through his body. He doesn’t seem like the type, but she was cute, she was seductive, and she had drugs. It’s possible there’s no sex if he doesn’t play along, and as he tells the detective, she’s only the second girl he’s ever slept with, so his hormones weren’t in his favor either.  

HBO provided seven of the eight episodes to critics, and without delving much further into the story, I can tell you that this is the very definition of must-see. This is the series the network needed, and it comes at the perfect time. The finale will air at the end of August, but this is the story you’ll be talking about with your friends as football season approaches. Along with Mr. Robot, here’s the best thing on TV this summer. Netflix has BoJack Horseman on the way, along with some other heavy hitters, but as for more traditional television, there’s very little that can compete with The Night Of.

John Turturro, who we meet in the episode’s final half-hour, has the temperament to portray all sides of Jack Stone, including the eczema. Anyone familiar with his work knows how good he is, but this is up there with Herbert Stempel on my Turturro performance list. Originally, James Gandolfini was set to play the role, but that was before HBO passed on the series in February 2013. In May, the network changed its mind, but Gandolfini died the next month. Robert De Niro was the replacement, but his schedule didn’t work well with the shooting plans, and Turturro joined the cast in 2014. It’s been a long road to get here, but we’ve arrived, and drama fans are in for a treasure of misery.

Along with Stone, Naz’ casting had to be impeccable, and Riz Ahmed steps onto the screen and takes complete control. We’re about to see a lot of Ahmed, as he’s in Jason Bourne, which releases in two weeks, and is also starring in Rogue One. In England, he’s known as much for his politically controversial rap career as he is his work on stage and screen, but what you’re about to know him for is the innocence he gives to Nasir Khan. Turturro is the series lead, but Ahmed is equally impressive. It’s not the easiest role, but the 33-year-old entertainment veteran (sounds odd, but true) is up to the task.

Sofia Black D’elia plays Andrea Cornish, The Night Of’s victim, and while we don’t get to know her all that well, she’s excellent. Looking at Naz and looking at Andrea, it’s easy to see why he couldn’t restrain himself and just kick her out of the car. She has the street smarts he doesn’t, and she also knows how to manipulate him into doing anything she wants. The story isn’t about her, so we have to get to her end in short order. The man trying to find out who killed her, Dennis Box, is intriguing and has the gruff, matter-of-fact nature that you’d want in a guy whose guile and intelligence is likely to leave your stomach churning. Bill Camp is awfully good here, and he’ll be spending more time with Riz Ahmed, as he too is part of the Jason Bourne cast.

For those that don’t want everything given away, I’ll leave some of the other names out there in the ether for you to discover. You’ll see several veterans of The Wire and The Sopranos, another indication of the quality to be found in the series.

Watching the trailer, you might think it’s True Detective’s third season, even down to the font. That’s where the comparisons end. This is a much tighter show, reliant on the basics, and never actually reinventing anything. It’s not groundbreaking because it’s different. It’s groundbreaking because it’s pristine in execution. It’s groundbreaking because of its authenticity. It’s simply exceptional at doing what it does. You’ve seen all its tricks in other shows and definitely in feature films, but the skill level is off the charts.

In a world where Serial dominates the podcast charts, Making a Murderer and O.J.: Made in America turn documentaries into culturally important happenings, The Night Of is right at home. It’s familiar enough to get you on the sofa, captivating enough to keep you there, and brilliant enough to send you rushing to the phone to beg your friends to watch. Earlier this year, I said nobody does dread like The Americans. I still believe that, but The Night Of is a spiritual sibling. There are sequences, even in the opener, where I wanted to curl up into a ball, because everything was about to get worse.

The Night Of is awful. That’s why it’s indispensible drama, a true standout, and among the best things, of any kind, you’ll see on television this year. I’ll be reviewing it weekly, and will avoid spoiling anything that’s still to come in the story. Altogether affecting, infuriating, and thought provoking, this is a can’t miss trip straight behind the bars of hell.

The Night Of airs Sunday nights at 9 ET on HBO.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyNamedJason. And no, I won’t stop to get you a drink.

Written by Jason Martin