HBO’s The Night Of Unfolds Like a Fat Crime Novel

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John Turturro and Riz Ahmed in The Night Of. Photo: Craig Blackenhorn/Courtesy of HBO

HBO’s procedural mini-series The Night Of is the longest, bleakest Law & Order episode ever. Co-written by novelist and screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers, The Wire) and directed by writer-filmmaker Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action), it draws out its account of an accused killer’s odyssey through New York City’s criminal-justice system over eight grim yet engrossing hours, lingering on the distinctive language of cops, lawyers, judges, jailhouse guards, accused criminals, convicted felons, and anxious relatives; situating their troubles within the context of a broken system; and finding the pulse in situations and settings that you thought had been done to death. This is not an especially innovative series: It’s based on the British mini-series Criminal Justice, created by Peter Moffat, and it follows the Slow TV template recently perfected by the likes of American Crime and The People vs. O.J. Simpson, giving each scene maximum space to breathe, often more than it needs. But the net effect is hypnotic, like reading a fat crime novel filled with memorable characters and atmospheric details. Like Price’s novels Clockers and Freedomland, which gave deeply unglamorous crimes the Dostoyevsky treatment, this one draws equally on 19th-century fiction and the kinds of stories that cops, lawyers, and social workers tell each other in bars after work.

Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) plays Nasir Khan, a Pakistani-American college student from Queens who impulsively borrows his dad’s cab so that he can attend a party in Manhattan. A young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) gets into the cab, and because she’s pretty and teasing and troubled, he drives her to her Upper West Side apartment, spends a debauched night with her, and wakes up to find her dead beside him, drenched in blood from stab wounds. Did he kill her? Although nearly everyone assumes he did — why wouldn’t they, since he fled the scene with the bloody knife in his pocket? — we just don’t know. Price and Zaillian adopt a kind of modified Rectify viewpoint toward the issue of guilt or innocence. They treat it as a MacGuffin that lets them explore what happens to a first-time and possibly innocent suspect passing through a system that has little empathy, less money, and even less patience.

Nasir’s lawyer, Jack Stone (national treasure John Turturro, in a role James Gandolfini was originally set to play), is a sharp-witted man with a been-there smirk and a low-key cynicism (“The truth can go to hell because it doesn’t help you,” he tells Nasir). He also has a wicked case of psoriasis on his foot, and the more time Stone spends with Nasir, the more this starts to feel like a symbolic affliction, like the ulcer that the crack dealer Strike treats with vanilla Yoo-Hoo in Clockers. Stone carries himself like a man who is no longer capable of outrage or surprise, but his client’s dim prospects nag at him, undermining his world-weary pose. The scene in episode two where Stone negotiates his fee with Nasir’s parents (Payman Maadi and Poorna Jagannathan) is all the more cringe-inducing for being so understated: His initial offer is a $75,000 retainer, but when he hears that they have only $8,000 in their checking account, he drops it lower, then lower still, partly because it’s a high-profile case that he knows could make his career, but mostly because the whole scenario upsets him in ways he can’t articulate. Although it would be a stretch to call Stone a secret idealist, he has, ahem, an itch that needs scratching. “I have the strength of ten,” he says. “Do you know why? Because my heart is pure.” At first you can’t be entirely sure if he’s kidding about this, because there’s a hint of a grin in his voice — as is often the way Turturro delivers a sentiment. (He’s a warm actor.) But pretty soon you figure out it’s neither an ironic nor a sincere description of Stone. It’s a wish.

Stone’s foil, Detective Box (the great character actor Bill Camp), is dealing with his own psychic distress. Most of the people who pass through his interrogation room are guilty as hell. He wonders if this nervous, polite young man will prove to be an exception, but he’s also on guard against letting doe-eyed civilians play him for a sucker. “Christian, Jew, Muslim, what have you,” he tells Nasir, “there’s an immense sense of relief when [suspects] just let go and finally tell you the truth.” He keeps talking to Nasir even though Stone has warned him never to respond; because the kid is decent, he can’t help replying, then going silent for a while, then talking again.

The mini-series offers a second suspect in the form of Andrea’s stepfather, played by Paul Sparks, an actor who excels at playing instantly unlikable men. Is he hiding a terrible secret or do we just assume the worst of him because he’s so introverted and cold? What will become of Nasir? Will he be punished for the crime he’s been accused of, justly or unjustly? The real tragedy is that the system renders such questions largely irrelevant. Nasir’s family’s bank account will be bled regardless, and he’ll spend weeks or months on Rikers Island, staving off assaults by allying himself with a disgraced ex-boxer played by Michael Kenneth Williams. For all its procedural exactness and gallows humor, The Night Of is a tragedy about a society that punishes itself by signing off on a hobbled system of crime and punishment that creates more frustration and sadness than justice. The Night Of communicates this sense of underlying despair through its in-the-belly-of-the-beast sound design — a depressive symphony of distant guffaws, clanging cell doors, and Kubrickian air whooshes — and through its cinematography, which smushes its people into the edges or corners of the frame. Sometimes characters are cropped from the neck at the bottom of the frame line, as if they were shipwreck survivors who can barely keep their heads above water.

*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.