HBO’s evolution from movie channel that has a few shows to premium television network that also plays movies has to rate among the best on-the-fly transitions in the age of on-demand viewing. It’s shown a sagacious eye for content, led by ultra-popular cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones, and the announcement of a limited-run crime drama certainly piqued our interest.
So, is The Night Of another feather in the cap of the Emmy-hungry powerhouse, or is it a rare misstep from HBO ala The Newsroom or Season 2 of True Detective?
Stood up by a friend that was supposed to take him to a party, seemingly mellow college student and tutor Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed; Nightcrawler) “borrows” his father’s taxi to make the drive. Naz gets lost, however, and ends up with an attractive woman looking for a ride. The two connect and, after some alcohol and drugs, end up at her place for sex.
Afterwards, Naz blacks out, awakening to find the girl murdered. In a panic, he races out and is picked up for DUI a short time later. While the police initially don’t realize they’ve apprehended the murder suspect, they eventually sort it out and Naz is booked by Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp; Black Mass), who has substantial evidence of Naz’s guilt.
While sitting in holding, Naz is spotted by John Stone (John Turturro), an ambulance chasing attorney that believes the unassuming young man is there on a simple misdemeanor. Even when he learns of the true charges, however, Stone stays on the case, eventually getting teamed with Chandra Kapoor, who is a young subordinate in a prestigious law firm.
While Stone and Kapoor work to build a case on the outside, Naz must learn how to survive inside the penitentiary. To that end, he’s befriended by former prizefighter turned inmate Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams; The Wire) — a man that commands a lot of respect within the facility. As all that transpires, one question remains: did he do it?
As you’d suspect with an HBO miniseries, the performances are generally first rate. Despite not being big fans of Turturro, who plays the part originally meant for James Gandolfini prior to his untimely passing, he does a good job of being world weary, scraping together a living by quickly settling minor cases. Both Turturro and Khan provide depth to their respective roles, something that’s afforded by the methodical approach taken by the series.
Humanizing the prosecuting side is another important part of The Night Of. Camp is excellent as the soon-to-be retired Detective Box, who always seems to harbor some level of suspicion about Naz’s innocence but remains true to his job of following the evidence. Likewise, Jeannie Berlin does excellent work as grizzled DA Helen Weiss.
There’s a rawness to everything that the innumerable crime dramas on network TV can’t match, and The Night Of takes advantage of that latitude. It fills the world with multiple storylines, highlighted by the most unflattering look at prison life this side of Oz. Williams, who played Omar Little on The Wire, is similarly sociopathic in his role as Naz’s benefactor, offering compassion and support, but never leaving behind how menacing the character can be.
Cinematography has a majestic, artsy feel to it, effectively casting the city of New York in a starring role along the way. Granted, it can be a little much — such as the scene where the bus transports Naz to Rikers Island for the first time — but its vivid imagery plays a big part.
While we don’t want to directly spoil any of the show’s plot points, it’s hard to discuss the series without touching on what will undoubtedly be a divisive ending. It just feels at odds with so much of what you’ve seen up to that point. We dare not say more, but understand we didn’t think the ending was bad, just that it’s bound to disappoint some viewers.
When we characterized the show’s approach as methodical, we meant it. We’re all for the slow burn in building a story, but there are a couple of episodes where The Night Of really struggles to keep up its momentum. Those accustomed to their TV cases wrapping up in a tidy 45 minutes need to go in eyes wide open to the fact that there is no shortage of time-consuming minutia here.
There are a few story arcs we could’ve done without, or at least seen greatly reduced. Stone’s ongoing battle with eczema, primarily on his feet, is the biggest as it gets way too much screen time. It’s played for levity but is completely overdone. Chandra’s follies felt unrealistic.
Although it suffers from some pacing problems, The Night Of proves to be an enthralling crime drama that traffics in grit and realism. That being said, how fondly you look back at its totality will largely be based on what you thought of its final chapter.