I was hypnotized by The Night Of for five or six episodes, which isn’t bad at all considering that it’s an eight-part HBO miniseries. To me, it seemed to scratch the itch that season 2 of True Detective left me with. It’s on the dark side of things: it mostly takes place at night and/or indoors, but even the exterior daylight scenes look sort of gloomy. It’s about crime and punishment, and about the law, about justice and injustice, and about courts and prison. It’s set in New York, but is based on the British TV series Criminal Justice from 2008-09, starring Ben Whishaw. The Night Of, however, has no problem standing on its own.
The pilot introduces us to Nasir Khan (perfectly played by Riz Ahmed), a New York college student with a head for maths, who is about to make his way to a party across town. He needs a ride and steals his father’s yellow cab with the intention of bringing it back before anyone notices. He has a hard time convincing customers that his cab is off duty. And then a girl gets on his backseat and stays there. (We later learn that her name is Andrea Cornish.) Naz doesn’t find it in himself to throw her out, because she seems… lonely. Naz seems to be able to relate because he is not exactly surrounded by many friends himself. They drive to the beach, then to her place. Naz is spellbound by her. They flirt, they take drugs, they play a knife game. She says she cannot be alone tonight, and so Naz stays. They make love. There is something worrying about Andrea, something slightly wrong, but then there is something wrong with the whole neighborhood that night: the streetlights are a sickly yellow, dousing the rows of brownstones in a bizarre orange and shedding their beams into the run-down and messy rooms. There is a strange fever in everyone and everything in The Night Of. It affects the undertaker at the gas station who takes exception to people throwing away cigarettes near the pump. It affects the two black guys who see a white girl enter a Manhattan brownstone with what, to them, looks like a Muslim, and make casual racist remarks.
Later that night, Naz wakes up at the kitchen table. He finds Andrea dead in her bed, the walls spattered with her blood. Has he killed her? He panicks and takes the apparent murder weapon, a kitchen knife, with him. Sometimes he seems to think that he did it, sometimes not. Maybe I have seen too many cop shows, but I never thought for a second that he had something to do with her death. That’s a narrative trap because it makes us care. It makes us care even more that, to the cops who arrest Nasir, and to Detective Box, he looks guilty as hell.
And Detective Box is one of the best written TV characters this year. He is played faultlessly by Bill Camp, who seems to be in a lot of things I’ve watched the last two months: The Leftovers season 2, Midnight Special, Black Mass. Box interviews Naz the same night, and while he doesn’t lie to him or threaten him, he wants to coax a confession out of Naz. Box sounds and appears like a father figure, but there is no doubt that he thinks Naz is guilty. He is the kind of guy you want to confess to, although you are still uncertain if you are guilty.
Then there is Jack Stone, a lawyer for hire, street-smart, but down on his luck. He’s plagued by eczema on his feet, and he only asks for his flat fee if his client walks. He is a pitiful figure, and I wouldn’t trust him fully either if he was my lawyer. The problem is, he is just as smart as Box – in fact, they know each other, and Stone calls Box “a subtle beast.” Stone has good advice for Naz, but Naz doesn’t trust him, but then Box has good advice, and Naz distrusts the cop, too. Finally, Naz cannot trust himself because he took drugs and zonked out, and now Andrea is dead.
A short excursion: The series is produced by James Gandolfini, who died in June 2013. He was also slated to play Jack Stone and filmed even a few scenes. While watching The Night Of, I could almost hear Gandolfini’s asthmatic breathing in some of the courtroom scenes. And remember how Tony Soprano always fumbled with his shoes when sitting in Dr Melfi’s office? Jack Stone has severe skin problems on his feet and has to wear sandals so he can scratch himself with a chopstick whenever and wherever he feels like it. I am sure that’s an intended hommage. It’s a damn shame that Gandolfini didn’t get to play that role. It was probably a matter of honor for Turturro to step in and take over, since the two men had a lot of fun shooting Romance & Cigarettes in 2005, directed by Turturro, starring him and Gandolfini. End of excursion.
The Night Of is only marginally a Whodunit. Naz does time on Rikers Island, where questions about guilt and innocence take a backseat. When his bed is set on fire, he reluctantly accepts the protection of Freddy, an inmate who seems to command most of the inmates and some of the guards. Protection from whom? Well, from Freddy himself, if Naz refuses to accept his help. Freddy is well played by Michael K. Williams, but I really wonder if he ever gets tired of being cast as the psychotic villain. Remember Omar Little and Chalky White? That was him. And these are just the HBO psychopaths he’s played. And it’s under Freddy’s wing that Naz turns into a hardened criminal. While that ironic twist of fate is nothing new, those scenes are well written and well acted, although prisons, especially Rikers Island, have very different rules in reality.
Other characters drift into focus. There are Nasir’s parents and his brother (Peyman Moaadi, Poorna Jagannathan and Syam M. Lafi), who worry that Naz might never get out of jail again. Naz’ father also worries about his cab because he co-owns it with two other men, who grow restless that the vehicle stays on the impound lot for days on end. On the legal front, besides Box and Stone, there is district attorney Heidi Weiss (Jeannie Berlin), who looks like your forgetful auntie, but is a tough as nails in the courtroom. There is Andrea’s stepdad, Don Taylor (Paul Sparks), who still wants to get the brownstone Andrea lived in. There are witnesses, forensic experts, beat cops, hookers, social workers. They all seem drawn from life, and yet the whole series is on one hell of a downward spiral.
And there is another lawyer by the name of Chandra Kapoor, played by Amara Karan. It’s here that the cracks first showed, because she is the first character whose writing turns sloppy. She works for a law firm headed by Alison Crowe. The Khans shortly consider having these two women as lawyers for Naz, but Naz wants Stone. But then Chandra starts working alongside Stone. Why? Have I missed something? Does she do all that work in her own spare time? Doesn’t seem like it. That is just a technicality, but the problems I had with Chandra grew bigger when she started to fall for Naz. There is a kiss between them in a Rikers Island holding cell that is utterly surprising, very puzzling, and remains unexplained. And as soon as Alison discovers Chandra’s moonlighting, she sacks her. So those were billable hours? To whom? I still don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong – Amara Karan does what she can with the role, she has plenty of presence, and although she is a rookie lawyer and Stone talks down to her, she projects a kind of smartness that made me think that maybe she could win over a jury or go head-to-head with Heidi Weiss, but she never really has her moment in the series. The difficulties with her are all in the screenplay, but let me tell you that everybody looks kind of inconsistent in the last two episodes. A suspect is ushered in, and lo and behold, he really did murder Andrea, and Weiss’ and Box’ last scenes are used to agree to go after him. That’s cheap and weak, and it’s a shame to let two such great supporting characters down like that.
I know I sound a lot like in my review of True Detective season 1: good series, but a disappointing end. Well, not quite. Thing is, in True Detective, a downbeat end makes a certain kind of sense because how else could it end than with the death of the murderer and most questions open? The Night Of, on the other hand, ends in shoddy writing, rushed scenes and a mob-style tying up of loose ends (hello, Tony). I can’t shake off the feeling that the series should have had ten episodes or a 90-minute ending. Maybe they filmed a mediocre draft. Well, whatever, a series like The Night Of deserves a much better ending, no matter how much of a downer it might be.