Starring: Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, Bill Camp, John Turturro’s feet
Created by: Steven Zaillian and Richard Price
Synopsis: Young college kid Naz (Ahmed) runs into a young troubled woman one night, after a booze and drug fuelled liaison he wakes to find her brutally murdered. What follows tells of the ensuing trial and the players involved.
The Night Of is stunning. I’m tempted to just leave this review to that one line and let you all check out this distinctive and gripping slice of a crime thriller. But I love it so much that I need to get these thoughts down on the page.
An American adaptation of the BBC drama Criminal Justice (also critically acclaimed and spanning a few seasons) The Night Of takes one case and the events of one tragic night then showcases the procedural processes of the US justice system. Right from the off the show sets out its domineering principles. Slow paced, highly detailed and utterly engrossing. The first episode follows, seemingly in real time, young naive college kid Naz, an award worthy Riz Ahmed, as he makes one bad decision after another. Running into a young woman, what ensues is hazy, sensual and riddled with darker hints at both of their true natures. Waking up in the kitchen Naz stumbles upon a gory scene and panics. As he attempts to flee and winds up getting pulled over the tension is unbearable. It’s almost a relief when things blow up and the police discover a potential murder weapon in Naz’s jacket.
After this moment we are introduced to the other key player in this saga. Attorney John Stone, played with wounded grace by John Turturro (a role originally meant for James Gandolfini, he retains an executive producer credit) is an odd sight. Wearing sandals due to his awful execma and carrying himself with the weight of someone who only represents the lowest of the low, he spies Naz looking terrified and something in him sparks to life. The chance to represent an innocent man and do some good for once is not a new concept in the world of crime dramas but Turturro gives the role such soul and richness that you can’t help but be drawn in.
The case moves forward once more in minute detail. We follow Naz into Rikers jail and into the “protection” of Michael K Williams’s Freddy. Williams excels at playing criminal types with hidden layers and here he is no different. Seeing in Naz something he lost the chance of. That of a normal life and the chance to use intellect to rise up beyond his low social status. It’s telling that out of all his framed pictures of his children and family, that his most prized possession is the college graduation he has.
The prison sections are the moments where the true complexity of Ahmed’s performance come to light. Seemingly fitting in within this world of drug smuggling and throat slitting the hints of his dark side slide his presumed innocence into the realms of ambiguity. Ahmed plays every moment with quiet depth, his eyes conveying numerous feelings with what seems like ridiculously little effort. This is an award worthy role. Just at moments where you become certain that he just may have committed this heinous crime he flips it around, making you see the sweet naive guy that so enamoured Stone to begin with.
Numerous other characters drift in and out of this dark tale, all of them given the same nuances as the central two. We have Detective Box, played with silent grace by Bill Camp. An experienced cop due to retire, we do get the usual golf gifts and send off party but given mournful sadness by Camp, he investigates the overwhelming evidence against Naz whilst still harbouring doubts that just something ain’t right.
We have Naz’s parents, played Poorna Jagannathan and Peyman Moaadi, two gentle souls who suffer the real quiet tragedy in the ensuing trial. The accusing eyes of friends and neighbours (the insular nature of the Musilm community is prevalent but not explicit) and the lack of funds forcing them to lose any dignity they may have had left. Jagannathan is a particular standout, driven to believe her son even when her brain is yelling that she may not have known him well at all.
There are numerous others that I could wax lyrical about but I’m conscious of rambling on for too long. Just know it rivals HBOs other flagship shows in richness of character and detail. Although one character does lead into the show’s major issue. It comes quite late into the finale; young lawyer Chandra, played by Amara Khan, who is assigned to Naz despite her inexperience. She is retained for more manipulative racial motivations which play a big part early on. Slowly developing feelings for the accused, she winds up making two decisions in the finale that betray the characters intelligence and are done for obvious narrative reasons, the show had actively avoided favouring plot machinations over character until this point. Luckily it isn’t focused on for too long and it is all done in order to facilitate one of the show’s high points; a surprisingly moving speech from Turturro.
Turturro is also the victim of one other minor flaw. The execma that plagues him so is given probably a little too much focus in the early going. I understand the way it is utilised to caption how ostracised he is and feels by his favoured profession but how many times do we need to see him scratch himself with chopsticks. Although the way his condition factors into an attempt to do good by the victim in adopting her cat results in a final scene of breathtaking simplicity and heart.
There is so much more to say but to go on more will rob you all of a true TV sensation. The superb tightly controlled direction, the beautiful unique cinematography (numerous scenes feature innocuous objects that add up to the gripping detail) and the complete absence of melodrama. It is the first time I’ve seen courtroom scenes delivered with no loud voices and soap opera historinics. They all seem rather drab and monotone and yet it is that commitment to realism that gives them their power.
Writer Richard Price has spoken of his desire to do another season focusing on a different case and based on this evidence I’d gladly see more. Finding the truth in the details, the humanity in the mundanity and the ambiguity within our very nature The Night Of is sensational TV. Lose yourself inside it. This is one Night you won’t want to end.