The social harm caused by violence in television, films, and video games has been a talking point for pundits and politicians for decades. But what about the effects of fictional depictions of the law enforcement agencies tasked with preventing violence? For those of us lucky enough to avoid entanglements with the American justice system, pop culture has undoubtedly informed how we view the way cops and lawyers operate, though not in particularly enlightening ways.
Sometimes the law enforcement agent we see on-screen is a quirky yet secretly brilliant eccentric — think Columbo or Monk (technically a PI, but still) amiably puttering his way toward unmasking the killer of the week. More often, it is a “realistic” paragon of grim competence, typified by the streetwise investigators on Law & Order and CSI, who work to methodically ferret out murderers while trading quips and sips from paper coffee cups. Either way, the entertainment industry has conditioned the public to expect a kind of scientific precision from the legal system — witnesses are interviewed, physical evidence is collected, suspects are interrogated, lawyers spar, juries deliberate, and the accused is convicted because of course they are guilty.
Lately, however, a shift has occurred. The age of procedurals has given way to the anti-procedural — depictions of how the system can fail — spearheaded by the podcast Serial and the expansive true-crime documentaries Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and OJ: Made in America. Even more impactful are the videos of black civilians being murdered by police officers that have become a terrifying staple of social media, including two, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, just this week.
To point out that there are flaws in a system set up to protect all Americans seems like a grievous understatement. Now that (white) America is a little more woke, Law & Order feels about as grounded in real life as The Avengers.
Entering this cultural moment is HBO’s The Night Of, a spellbinding eight-part limited series about a Pakistani-American college student named Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed, in a star-making turn) accused of murdering a young woman. Khan is subsequently pursued by an obsessive, opera-loving detective (called Dennis Box, in case you’re into metaphors, and played by Bill Camp) and defended by a quirky yet secretly brilliant attorney Jack Stone (John Turturro). Other archetypes — political-minded D.A.s, sardonic municipal workers, predatory journalists — populate the margins.
In spite of the formula trappings, The Night Of is the first great anti-procedural done in the mold of the traditional TV procedural. The Night Of is skeptical of what TV shows about men who murder women used to take for granted: Cops manipulate suspects into surrendering their Constitutional rights, witnesses are biased, expert testimony is massaged by prosecutors, good kids are dehumanized by prison. This is a show designed for an audience that learned about “chain of custody” from Sarah Koenig.
The Night Of has already been hailed as a comeback for HBO, whose patina of “It’s Not TV” prestige has been tarnished lately by massively hyped failures like Vinyl and season two of True Detective. The Night Of is certainly an impressive achievement, though it’s not the sort of achievement that normally suits the HBO brand. The Night Of doesn’t aim to subvert its genre à la The Sopranos with mob shows or Deadwood with Westerns. While it has considerable breadth, The Night Of isn’t all that ambitious in terms of its themes or innovative from a narrative perspective. Were it not for the typically portentous opening credits sequence — heavy on the ominous cellos and shadowy imagery on loan from a Metallica video — The Night Of could’ve aired on TNT.
That’s not a criticism — if there’s one thing HBO’s dramas have lacked lately, it’s storytelling fundamentals. In that regard, The Night Of offers refreshing clarity, even as it delves into the moral murk of the murder case. Working off a template established by the 2008 BBC miniseries Criminal Justice, creators Steven Zaillian (best known for writing Schindler’s List and directing the fine 1998 legal drama A Civil Action) and Richard Price (The Wire, Spike Lee’s excellent 1995 crime film Clockers) don’t have the hot-shot auteur reputation of True Detective‘s Nick Pizzolatto or the fame of Vinyl‘s Martin Scorsese. But they are pros with a proven track record of translating a byzantine network of cops, lawyers, and criminals into gripping, easily digestible entertainment.
I’m reluctant to discuss the plot of The Night Of — not so much for spoilers, but rather because the story unfolds more or less as you might expect, assuming you’ve watched this kind of show before. What matters here is the execution. The pleasures of The Night Of derive from its tremendous level of craft — the way the direction (handled mainly by Zaillian) skillfully lays out reams of pertinent information simply and clearly; the depth and jocularity of Price’s writing; the beauty of the cinematography (handled by A-list talent like Robert Elswit and Fred Elmes), which evokes the textures of film noir as well as Gordon Willis’ landmark work in anti-establishment ’70s classics like The Godfather, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; and above all the acting by the uniformly excellent cast.
About that cast: Ahmed will justifiably command most of the attention, given how he expertly anchors The Night Of with a mix of boyish charm, fear, and an understated pensiveness that makes Nasir’s innocence an open question, as it usually is in anti-procedurals. Ahmed is at his most versatile in The Night Of’s excellent pilot, which pivots so deftly between different tones and settings that it almost feels like a collection of short films.
The first 20 minutes unfolds as an After Hours-style urban nightmare, following Nasir as he conspires to sneak out to a college party by borrowing his father’s cab. After heading into the city, he gets lost, and while stopped at a corner a beautiful woman gets into his cab. They talk, they flirt, they wind up sitting by the river under an impossibly starry sky. Soon, they are heading back to her place. Ahmed communicates Nasir’s anticipatory lust via nervous flickers across his soulful eyes.
Later, after an encounter at the woman’s apartment goes horribly awry, Nasir flees and is picked up for driving under the influence. The cops put Nasir in the back of their car, but are waylaid on their way to the station by a 911 call. Like that, Nasir is back outside the same apartment, and is forced to watch as the cops uncover a murder scene, a sequence that recalls the best of Hitchcock. Again, it’s Ahmed’s eyes that draw you in — he’s understandably panicked, but is he also guilty?
As The Night Of unfolds, Ahmed shows how Nasir hardens under the tremendous weight of government bureaucracy, as he learns how to survive in prison while awaiting trial under the tutelage of a soft-spoken jailhouse ringleader (Michael K. Williams). But The Night Of doesn’t evolve into just a disturbing prison drama — Zaillian and Price keep several other balls in the air as well. The Night Of also dwells on the creeping doubts that Box has about the case, the machinations of a celebrity defense attorney (Glenne Headly) who may not have Nasir’s best interests at heart, and the financial struggles of Nasir’s parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan). Even a seemingly minor character like the victim’s stepfather, Don Taylor (played with maximum creepiness by Boardwalk Empire‘s Paul Sparks), makes an indelible impression.
Then there’s Stone, and his poor, disgusting feet — a recurring gag that’s intended to leaven The Night Of, though it’s ultimately just as stomach-churning as the murder investigation. Badly cracking skin doesn’t normally get this much screen time outside of The Walking Dead, but Turturro is uniquely qualified to give this slovenly character his dignity. Originally, the part of Stone was to be played by James Gandolfini, who filmed a few scenes for the pilot but died shortly after. (His scenes were later reshot with Turturro.) While Gandolfini would’ve been good as Stone, the part is perhaps better handled by an actor who’s not such an overwhelming screen presence. Turturro meanwhile has always been a guy who looks like he belongs on the subway more than a Hollywood set. Gross-out appendages aside, Turturro holds the center as the show’s moral conscience.
Is The Night Of a game-changer on par with HBO’s most celebrated shows? No. This is not “not TV,” but rather an example of how satisfying conventional TV can be when done exceptionally well. The Night Of might feel somewhat workman-like as a result, but after a few years of chasing sexy stars and getting rewarded with glamorous disasters, HBO could stand to retrench with people who know what they’re doing for a change.
The Night Of begins this Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. The first episode is now available on HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO On Demand.