Review: ‘The Night Of’ gets off to a breathless start with ‘The Beach’

Earlier this week, I published my rave review of HBO's new miniseries The Night Of, and I'm going to put it into the weekly review rotation for its run, starting with thoughts on the first episode, coming up just as soon as I can name two Yankees headed for the Hall of Fame…

“Am I really here?” -Naz

Because “The Beach” has been available for a few weeks through HBO's On Demand and streaming services, I've gotten to see the early reactions to it, which tend to break down along three paths:

1)That was unbearable to watch because I felt so bad for Naz as his night out went so horribly awry;

2)That was unbearable to watch because Naz acted like such a complete idiot at every turn;

3)Even though I felt bad for Naz, and/or couldn't believe how stupid he kept being, I was riveted by the whole thing.

My response was definitely in the third group, but I can completely understand where the first two are coming from. The episode is, indeed, a never-ending nightmare for Nasir, and he compounds it by making the worst possible choice at every turn (letting Andrea stay in the cab, using drugs with her, not calling the cops when he finds the body(*), taking the knife with him, not asking for a lawyer). But the way that Richard Price and Steve Zaillian tell this nightmare story, and the completely open and vulnerable performance by Riz Ahmed, kept me glued to my chair and intermittently unable to breathe throughout.

(*) The proper reference, if you're above a certain age, is, “If Woody had gone right to the police, this would never have happened.”

In particular, once the officers who stop Naz for making the illegal left turn wind up bringing him right back to the crime scene he was fleeing in the first place, the premiere practically turns from drama into the blackest of comedy. This is one sick joke Naz has found himself trapped in, and the punchline is the jaw-dropping moment when Detective Box is describing the murder weapon to Sgt. Klein at the exact moment that Officer Wiggins, standing two feet away, is discovering that Naz has a knife matching that description on his person. (If there was an Emmy category for Best Pause, Bill Camp would be the heavy favorite for the perfect timing of the gap between “possibly serrated” and “knife.”) It takes a lot of patience on the part of the storyteller to get to that kind of moment and make it be as simultaneously painful and funny as it is, and it was worth every second of discomfort I felt throughout the preceding hour, as Naz's evening kept going from bad to worse.

From there, Camp as Box takes over for a while, and it's a wonderfully unfussy performance. Box is a guy who is obviously very good at what he does (the Night Watch guys call him in for a reason), and someone who cares deeply about the job and the mission, but there's no pretension or sense of self-righteousness to it. He's just going about his duty, trying to find answers, and that quiet, straightforward quality makes his interrogation of Naz so much more interesting than if he were grandstanding or threatening or in any other way playing bad cop.

Of course, I spent most of that interrogation screaming, “ASK FOR A LAWYER,” in the same way I spent many earlier parts of the episode trying to will Nasir to not make each and every one of his mistakes. It's impressive and agonizing how Price and Zaillian lay it all out, so that we see, for instance, each moment where Naz's movements are captured on camera, or when his bloody handprint winds up on Andrea's bannister, etc. Even a viewer who came into this entirely ignorant of the premise would know long before the body's discovery that our protagonist was walking himself into something very, very bad.

Andrea herself is something of a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl, existing mainly to hook Naz into this mess and then die, but Sofia Black D'Elia delivers a good performance nonetheless and helps carry those long scenes building up to the discovery of her body. But the most important scene partner for Naz arrives near the very end of the hour in the form of John Turturro as Jack Stone, who comes across like a hustler and a slob (even beyond the sandals he has to wear because of the eczema on his feet) who initially refers to Naz as “Gunga Din,” but who also can tell he's Pakistani by blood, knows a bit about the region, and becomes this drowning kid's lifeline. 

Whether viewed as horror show or black comedy, “The Beach” is among the most intense TV-watching experiences I've had in quite some time. It prompted me to race through the remaining screeners, and while I wait for the conclusion, I can't wait to discuss the rest of the series with you all.

Some other thoughts:

* The business with Stone's eczema comes (like a lot of this episode, I'm told) straight out of the British version. There's something of a tradition of skin diseases as important character points in British drama: the hero of The Singing Detective suffered from a severe case of psoriasis, for instance.

* It's at least a seven mile walk, and over at least one bridge, from Andrea's apartment to where the Khan family lives in Jackson Heights. While Andrea's cat certainly could have made its way over there during the night (Naz was asleep for a while, and then in police custody for many hours), the image of that kitty wandering past Mr. Khan as he stands in the street, looking for his cab and panicking about his son, is so evocative that I'm not going to worry too much about the route to get there.

* The song playing as Andrea and Naz play their drunken game of mumblety-peg is “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star.

* Though the episode takes place in the fall of 2014, the bulk of it was shot even earlier, since this is basically the original pilot, only subbing in John Turturro for the late James Gandolfini in a few scenes near the end. For the most part, this isn't an issue (the LeBron James argument from the two guys in lockup feels more dated because he just won a title in Cleveland, but those guys obviously wouldn't know that), but the earlier argument about Carmelo vs. Amare is definitely a relic of when the pilot was first filmed, since by October 2014, Amare was a marginal player soon to be given his outright release.

* Though J.D. Williams' character, Trevor, doesn't throw a rock at the camera in the interview room, it's still hard to watch Williams stare at any kind of police recording equipment without thinking of Bodie Broadus doing this.

* Beyond Williams and Bill Camp, other notable HBO faces on display in this one include Kevin Dunn (who, at the time this was filmed, would have been coming off of Luck, and before his stints on Veep and True Detective) as Danny Lang from Night Watch,  Ben Shenkman (Angels in America) as Sgt. Klein, and Joshua Bitton (The Pacific) as queasy Officer Maldonado.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at