HBO’s “The Night Of” begins with an after-school special come to life: A college kid trying to get to a party sneaks out in his dad’s cab and ends up, just hours later, in jail charged with murder. A pretty girl is dead, and the kid has her literal blood on his hands.
For the entire first episode, “The Beach,” the audience watches the night slowly unfold from the perspective of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) — a wide-eyed boy so seemingly innocent that he feels like a child entrusted to the viewer’s protection. Naz, as he likes to be called, is feeble with girls, sheltered by his parents, ignored by most of his classmates. It makes the sense of portent hanging over the first episode nearly unbearable. As a funny situation goes south from weird to complicated to outright bad, Naz retains that essential vulnerable sweetness, that innocence that shouts that it must be protected.
And yet, at the same time, he might be a murderer. The thing is, Naz doesn’t remember what happened in between going to bed and waking up a few hours later at the kitchen table. He just knows he went upstairs to say goodnight — and then there was blood everywhere.
It’s in that fog where “The Night Of” lies. The eight-part limited series leads us as this case winds through the criminal justice system, as the police, the prosecution, and the defense attempt to recreate the events of the night in question . The gaps in Naz’s understanding mirror both the investigators’ and our own. But despite those holes, the series is rich with enough detail that you can try to solve the crime on you own — if you can stop hyperventilating for long enough, that is. The series’ tone and pacing is precise and deadly, filming parking tickets and cell phone logs with the same haunting mystery that it lends to the George Washington Bridge at night or an unexpected skitter down a dark alleyway. It is difficult not be swept up in the world “The Night Of” creates. Creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price quickly trap the viewer in the show’s distinctive, immersive atmosphere — a noir mystery for the modern world.
That world is a gritty, multifaceted, lovingly depicted New York. At Naz’s home in Jackson Heights, the brothers argue about the Knicks’ starting lineup over dinner as their dad’s cab is parked on the curb outside. Across the bridge in Manhattan, Naz’s eczematic, eccentric lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) leads the viewer through the ins and outs of the city’s police precincts and criminal courts, greeting judges, district attorneys, and night officers with the same brazen cheer.
With Turturro’s Stone — a cheap, mediocre lawyer who has become a fixture of the city’s courts— “The Night Of” finds the elements of narrative that are most like a hardboiled detective story. Stone is part-Columbo, part-Monk: slightly off-putting, slightly endearing, and much smarter than he lets on. He’s quirky and wry, embodying his physical awkwardness and mental grace with a slight shuffle and a long trenchcoat.
It’s a role built for a virtuoso — and, indeed James Gandolfini was set to set to play it. He filmed the original pilot, back in 2013, and is still credited as an executive producer. Robert De Niro was then briefly attached before Turturro ultimately landed it.
It’s hard to say what those other interpretations of the part would have been, but Turturro chooses, wisely, to hang back a little. “The Night Of” is, in some ways, a standard crime whodunit, with the added metric of time — lots of time. Long, focused scenes and close attention to detail mark this series. The score is appreciably moody, glowering through shots so carefully framed that the loneliness, despair, or terror of the characters seems to sail, effortlessly, right through the screen. John Stone is there to be a constant in the midst of an ever-shifting story; the connective tissue to hold the long silences together. You may come to cheer his presence, or miss him fiercely when he’s not on-screen.
And with Turturro slightly off to the side, “The Night Of” can pay careful attention to the many contradictory details of Naz, who is portrayed by Ahmed with shapeshifting elegance. Ahmed transforms Naz with uncanny ability, hardening, softening, or warping his character right in front of the audience’s eyes.
Though the titular night of is only seen through Naz’s eyes, the rest of the story takes place in smattered chorus. And though the development of the show predates the podcast “Serial” (“The Night Of” is based on the British drama “Criminal Justice”), it is hard not to see correlation between the stories of fictional Naz and real-life Adnan Syed. Both are Muslim-American teenagers accused, with damning evidence, of murdering girls they were involved with. Both maintain their innocence, even as more distressing details emerge.
And both endure structural lapses in the criminal justice system — lapses that are not just borne by those behind bars. “The Night Of” is its most brilliant when it leans on the weakest members of the ensemble with the least understanding of the trial and the most to lose from it. Naz’s parents, played by Poorna Jagannathan and Payman Maadi, are quietly devastating, torn between their Jackson Heights community and a city hurling hate speech at them. The dead girl’s cat sneaks its way into the narrative, looking for somewhere to live. And in stark contrast, the corner-cutting, easily satisfied police detective Box (Bill Camp) is insidiously, subtly infuriating.
As much as the story is about making sense of this mystery and weighing the meaninglessness of innocence or guilt, it is also about how individuals cope with a large, cumbersome, selectively hateful bureaucracy. There’s a distinct “Law And Order” vibe to the numerous legal hoops the characters have to jump through, up to and including quite a bit of storytelling from the courtroom.
But if “The Night Of” is “Serial”’s sense of politics and time coupled with “Law And Order”’s New York grit, the show has one other stylistic forbear, this time from its parent network. No, it’s not “The Wire,” though fans of that show will recognize a few plot details and even more actors. It’s instead “True Detective”’s first season, that gothic upending of the Southern noir, which traded in mood just as much as it offered breadcrumbs towards its mystery. Like “True Detective,” it’s addictive, deeply moving… and, regrettably, populated by men investigating a “loose” woman’s death. “The Night Of” is smarter with its politics in just a few episodes than “True Detective” ever was over two seasons, but it’s hard to not notice that almost all of the characters are tortured men, and that a nameless girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia) had to die to start the story. Naz doesn’t learn her name until after she’s dead, which so blatantly makes her a cipher that the decision reads, in later episodes, like a twist of knowing irony.
But as much as “The Night Of” is playing to its demographic, it’s also finding ways to play with its male-dominated, noir premise — which is what Nic Pizzolatto did so brilliantly in the first “True Detective,” and failed to do in the second. Stone’s narrative is built almost entirely on humiliation and dismissal, up to and including from his own son. Naz is made to lose everything, including, possibly, his own chance at redemption. And though the characters might attempt to forget or escape the women of the narrative, the show has no such compunctions. All of the lawyers except Stone are women; fitting, in a murder trial for a girl who cannot speak for herself.
“The Night Of” is compulsively watchable and extraordinarily rewarding, a brilliant and addictive mystery that inspires the viewer to go back and watch the same scenes again, looking for subtler character beats and hidden clues. When I finished episode seven, I had to get up, go outside, and take a walk, just to recover from its emotional punch. In its quiet and stealthy way, the show manages to get under the skin — ensnaring the viewer in a net of confusion, half-truths, and the endless, deceptive fog of memory.