“The Night Of” is one of the most well-reviewed TV series of the year, and it’s not difficult to see why. I’ve seen seven of its eight parts, and I won’t spoil anything, but it continues to be a highly watchable murder mystery and a generally excellent vehicle for capable actors like Bill Camp, John Turturro and Riz Ahmed, among others.
“The Night Of” joins a long list of recent crime dramas that have garnered a ton of critical acclaim and sometimes the avid interest of the public as well; a few recommendations for things to watch after (or between episodes of) the HBO drama follow. But first, it’s worth noting how crime, one of TV’s sturdiest genres, has adapted so capably to the storytelling possibilities of the Peak TV era.
It’s not as if the crime drama ever went away, of course. But what’s generally true of this new wave of cop-and-lawyer procedurals is that they stretch the definition of “procedure.”
Instead of using a season of TV to tell the story of one or two dozen separate crimes, these shows flip the script: They use one or two major criminal incidents to explore how a dozen or more people react. Those people can be family members, cops, fellow citizens and friends of both the victim and the alleged criminal. The array of people who get to weigh in on what occurred and who have competing agendas and opinions make everything more complicated, and viewers can find their sympathies landing in unexpected places. Where better to surprise people than in a format they think they already know?
And it’s not necessarily a problem that most crime-oriented series or miniseries often only last six or so episodes; those that run for ten or 12 installments are rare. In an era in which too many dramas don’t have much to say and take too long to say it, this kind of brevity is often a feature, not a bug.
The best crime dramas use the longer running time to delve into issues of race, class, gender and all kinds of bias, and many spend time skeptically examining skewed power dynamics and the flaws of the criminal justice system. Social issues have often been covertly or even overtly part of the DNA of the “Law & Order” franchise and procedurals like “The Closer,” “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues” (to name but a few of the worthy shows in this arena). Those shows and others did take on hot-button issues, sometimes with “ripped from the headlines” stories, but writers working on mainstream dramas (then and now) are not typically encouraged to engage in systemic critiques of various aspects of American society. Even in the post-“Sopranos” era, an episode of a crime drama still had to have a certain kind of significant closure, and individuals were indicted far more frequently than institutions were.
But the migration of top-notch crime dramas from mainstream broadcast networks to cable and streaming networks that are willing to take more chances means that an array of fine writers are getting a chance do what “The Wire” did: Take an investigation and stretch it out, finding a lot of strange and specific nooks and crannies along the way. Nowadays, it’s not rare for a meaty crime drama to spend a whole season using a crime to shine a light on a host of complicated and connected deep-seated problems, but the best of the bunch also make time for the kind of vivid characterizations that make these enterprises emotionally engaging and entertaining (as “The Wire” did).
I’ve written a fair bit about how the one-hour drama is floundering these days; “ambitious” fare is often meandering and self-indulgent, and dramas aimed more squarely at the mainstream, especially those on the broadcast networks, are too frequently bland and toothless. But as generations of mystery novelists have demonstrated, a murder or some other kind of serious crime can give a strong, taut spine to tales that are both accessible and yet very interested in thorny issues of morality, culpability and ethics. A good crime drama, on TV, in novels or in film, is not merely character-driven; it is set inside the kind of crucibles that form, destroy and reveal character.
And it does that while supplying handy structural pegs to hang it all on: The investigation of a murder typically gives writers plenty of ways to build an entire season to an exciting conclusion, and along the way, they can break the story up into digestible chunks that have familiar shapes and forms (the crime scene, the collar, the arraignment, the jailhouse visits, etc.). “The Night Of” is a classy, smart drama that shows its HBO pedigree in every frame, but on some level, it’s an eight-hour version of a really good “Law & Order” episode. Yes, that is a compliment.
“The Night Of” isn’t perfect: Later in the season, there are a couple of developments that probably would have made “Law & Order’s” Lenny Briscoe roll his eyes, and I found the way that it exoticized the woman that Nasir Khan met in the first episode a little tiresome. That said, “The Night Of” is a finely crafted series with great details and a terrific sense of place. And as is the case with a good crime novel, “the series is rich with enough detail that you can try to solve the crime on your own,” as Variety’s review noted.
All that said, I won’t lie: I fear for this genre. The success of “The Night Of” and of many of the shows listed below means that, in coming years, viewers will be hit with an enormous wave of TV shows and documentary series based on high-profile crimes. I doubt many of them will have the kind of intelligence, depth and dexterity of the shows listed here, but we can only hope some of them do.
In any event, if you like “The Night Of” and want to partake in the finest of TV’s recent crime wave, this is by no means a complete list, but here are some recommendations:
- “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” FX: As is the case with “The Night Of,” this is about a man of color accused of murdering a white woman in a big city in which matters of race are complicated and potentially explosive. The savvy writing and the top-notch cast made this drama an addictive stand-out.
- “Top of the Lake,” Sundance (now on Netflix): Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men” is sensational in a very strong cast in this engrossing tale, which is set in New Zealand, the home of writer/director Jane Campion.
- “Happy Valley,” Netflix: As is the case with many of TV’s best new crime-driven dramas, “Happy Valley” provides a standout role to an actress who more than rises to the challenge. Sarah Lancashire’s spectacular performance anchors both seasons of one of the U.K.’s finest exports.
- “Broadchurch” season one, BBC America (now on Netflix): A phenomenal example of the murder-in-a-small-town genre and a terrific vehicle for stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman. Avoid the American remake and the second season of the U.K. original; they’re trying, to put it mildly.
- “The Fall,” Netflix: I’ve only seen the first season of this, but Gillian Anderson was terrific in it, and though I grow weary of TV’s fascination with serial killers, this generally well-crafted drama sometimes upends those tropes in interesting ways.
- “Fortitude,” Pivot (now on Amazon Prime): This enjoyable ice-bound version of the murder-in-a-small-town genre has Michael Gambon shooting at a polar bear and Stanley Tucci as a detached, ironic detective unhappily exported to the tundra.
- “Rectify,” Sundance (seasons 1-2 on Netflix): A bittersweet, humane and intelligent exploration of the impact of one murder on a man, his family and the town he grew up in.
- “Fargo,” FX: Both seasons of this dry drama feature first-rate casts, endearing oddballs and crime sprees gone memorably wrong.
- “True Detective” season one, HBO: The first season, which had its problems, is still worth seeking out for its arresting cinematography, its moments of philosophical lyricism and its great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
- “And Then There Were None,” Lifetime: Based on the Agatha Christie classic, this extremely sharp miniseries adaptation is a fantastic little gem.
- “Grantchester,” PBS/Masterpiece: I had to include this gentle and quietly enjoyable crime drama starring Robson Green and James Norton, because not everything on this list should be emotionally taxing. By the way, Norton is also in “Happy Valley,” so don’t watch those two shows at the same time, because his characters could not be more different and you would be courting mental whiplash.
- “The Staircase,” Sundance: A transfixing documentary that features an accused murderer with an ambiguous past, larger-than-life lawyers, exquisite pacing and an ending that has stuck with me in the decade since I first watched it.
- “Making a Murderer,” Netflix: A haunting, unsettling tale of crime and punishment in small-town Wisconsin.
- “The Jinx,” HBO: One of the strangest and most surprising roller-coasters of last year, “The Jinx” could be a little tonally chaotic, but it was unquestionably gripping.
- “Serial” season one podcast: As Variety’s “The Night Of” review notes, “it is hard not to see a 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.”
- “O.J.: Made in America,” ESPN: If you think the FX series was all the O.J. you needed, think again. This documentary is as devastating as it is detailed, and it’s sure to make many critics’ year-end Top 10 lists.
For a podcast discussion of “The Night Of,” go here.