There’s his name about a minute into the opening credits of The Night Of: James Gandolfini.
That Gandolfini, who died three years ago, is still listed as an executive producer on the new HBO miniseries speaks to the deal he signed way back when he was going to co-star in the project (in a role now played by John Turturro), and to his role as one of the people championing it through development. It also evokes images of an era when HBO owned the Prestige TV game, benevolently renting space out to would-be challengers because its position was so strong.
That was a long time ago, before the rise of Netflix and all the other Peak TV players, and before HBO skidded into its current rough patch. Executives keep leaving abruptly. Recent dramas have either failed outright (the expensive, star-laden Vinyl got unrenewed last month), imploded quickly (True Detective season 2) or simply failed to connect with the larger audience. The development pipeline has become increasingly clogged, to the point it was almost surprising that HBO committed to finally airing Westworld (which has had a troubled production history) this fall. Game of Thrones, and the Emmy success of Veep, covers over a lot of sins, but Thrones has maybe two years left, and there’s not only no obvious successor yet, once my beloved Leftovers airs its third and final season, there will literally be no other returning dramas on HBO.
On paper, The Night Of seems emblematic of HBO’s recent difficulties: stuck in development forever, with a credits list full of names from vintage HBO successes (The Wire alum Richard Price co-created it with Steve Zaillian, and the sprawling cast includes actors from The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Angels in America, and The Leftovers, among others). But the limited series doesn’t feel like a middle-aged man desperately clinging to his youth with a leather jacket and a convertible. Through seven of its eight hours (HBO didn’t give critics the finale in advance), it’s vital and gripping. It’s not an imitator dressing itself up in the trappings of a classic HBO drama, but the real deal.
In many ways, it’s a departure for HBO. It’s a rare adaptation of a recent English-language work, with Price and Zaillian transplanting the story of the UK’s Criminal Justice (which I haven’t seen) to New York, showing how a night of partying for Pakistani-American college kid Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) goes tragically awry when he wakes up to find the dead body of the girl (Sofia Black D’Elia) he met hours earlier and is arrested for her murder. It’s a crime drama that does feature cops (like The Wire) and extended sequences behind bars (like Oz), but its primary area of interest is the courtroom where Naz is tried for murder, and legal drama is one of the few TV formats HBO has never showed much interest in. It’s also a more straightforward genre piece than HBO usually does: where Sopranos combined mob intrigue with psychiatry, and The Wire‘s police procedural was really about the crumbling state of the American city, and even True Detective layered all that talk of demons and flat circles on top of a familiar serial killer story, The Night Of is simple in its intentions and its form: though it doesn’t instantly answer the question of whether Naz committed this horrible crime while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, the rest of it plays with its cards face-up to the viewer. If it’s blending anything, it’s the dense world and characterization of your usual Price novel (Clockers, Samaritan, Lush Life) with a whole lot of classical Hollywood filmmaking from Zaillian, who directed most of the episodes and gets shared writing credit on several with Price.
The first episode (it formally debuts Sunday at 9, but has been available On Demand and HBO’s streaming platforms since late last month) is both nerve-wracking and darkly comic, like an elaborate joke about the stupid kid who made every mistake possible on the worst night of his life. If Ahmed wasn’t so quietly charismatic, the hour would be unbearable; with him, and with Price and Zaillian at the top of their respective crafts, it’s riveting, as the tension builds and builds until a moment(*) where I had to pause to remember to breathe before I could applaud the sheer ingenuity and craft of all involved.
(*) If you’ve watched the premiere already, it’s the scene where Detective Box is describing the murder weapon to the desk sergeant, and… well, you know.
Zaillian and director of photography Robert Elswit favor long, gliding takes, often from the point of view of either Naz or his bottom-rung defense lawyer John Stone (Turturro). It’s not flashy, but it effectively puts the viewer one heartbeat away from Naz as he goes through this endless nightmare, and from John as he stumbles into the case of a lifetime after everyone has given up on expecting anything from him. Ahmed and Turturro are outstanding alone and together — the former operating mainly in silence, the latter a verbal hurricane of regrets and confessions and grievances — and effectively carry the split narrative as Naz learns how to survive in the Rikers Island jail (with a lot of help from Freddy, a disgraced former boxing champion played with the expected slow-burning intensity of Wire and Boardwalk Empire vet Michael Kenneth Williams), while Stone investigates alternate suspects and coaches up Chandra (Amara Karan), an inexperienced lawyer thrown into the case because she’s Indian-American, which to her bosses is close enough to Pakistani to make her part of the sales pitch.
Though many of the details of the story and characters are imported from Criminal Justice, particularly an elaborate, disgusting running gag about Stone trying various treatments for his eczema-afflicted feet (which will make you never want to bake with Crisco again), Price and Zaillian have made it a distinctly New York story. Character actors like Bill Camp (beautifully underplaying his role as Detective Dennis Box) Jeannie Berlin (the world-weariest of world-weary prosecutors), and Glenne Headly (a celebrity attorney who smells money and lots of TV time in the case) add a tantalizing whiff of pastrami on rye to the proceedings, and while Stone is given by far the richest inner life of the supporting characters, there’s a sense that you could follow any of these people home and it would be a compelling show. And the side effects that arise because Naz is a Muslim with immigrant parents (well played by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) are as fascinating as they are distressing.
Despite the high stakes for Naz and his family, The Night Of is also bracingly funny at times, with a sense of gallows humor — not just about Stone’s quixotic search for a treatment that will allow him to wear wingtips into court rather than open-toed sandals, but about the peculiarities of the criminal justice system and how it functions in New York City — that wouldn’t feel at all out of place on Richard Price’s previous HBO job. For that matter, when we see Michael Kenneth Williams glowering at the end of a lit cigarette, or watch his fellow Wire alum J.D. Williams eyeball a police surveillance camera, it doesn’t feel like shameless nostalgia for HBO’s golden age in the way that Vinyl often did, but like it’s establishing The Night Of as a worthy successor to those shows.
As I saw Gandolfini’s name in the opening credits of each new episode, I couldn’t help picturing a reality where he was still with us and playing John Stone. It would have been a great, unexpected role for him (much more Kevin Finnerty than Tony Soprano), and a triumphant return to the channel that made him a household name, and that he made into a juggernaut. That version will have to remain largely hypothetical (his role in the original pilot was so brief that he spent only one day on set), but the actual The Night Of is a wonderful bridge from HBO’s glorious past to its sketchy present. HBO needed another great drama desperately right now; it got one (albeit one with a finite lifespan) courtesy of its greatest star ever.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org