The Night Of (TV 2016)
Directed by Steven Zaillian, James Marsh
Written by Richard Price, Steven Zaillian
Based on the British television series Criminal Justice by Peter Moffat
HBO DVD – library (8:51)
I live in something of a cinematic vacuum. My friends and co-workers often seek to set me free from said vacuum by tempting me with current TV shows, assuring and often promising “You’ll love this show!” They’ve attempted to lure me into the television universe with Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, Fargo, The Leftovers, Big Little Lies, Westworld, and many more. I’ll usually ask them if the show is ongoing or if it’s ended. Is it one season or two? More? How many episodes? How long is each episode? When I start doing the math, I figure out that I can usually watch anywhere from five to eight movies during the same amount of time it would take me to watch one season of just about anything. So I usually pass.
But one of my co-workers told me that I might like the HBO series The Night Of, a self-contained season with eight hour-long (give or take) episodes. I’d heard positive things about the show but also knew it wasn’t being talked to death nearly as much as a show like Game of Thrones, so my interest level increased a bit. I had a long Labor Day weekend coming up, so I decided to give it a try.
Based on the 2008-09 British TV show Criminal Justice, The Night Of begins with a young college student, a Pakistani-American named Naz (Riz Ahmed) finding himself invited to a party in Manhattan. That’s not so unusual, but understand that Naz is quiet, a bit on the nerdy side (he tutors athletes) and really has nothing in common with the basketball players who invite him to this party, guys who promise Naz there’ll be plenty of beautiful girls in attendance. Naz misses his ride to the party and decides to “borrow” his father’s taxi, which leads to some interesting misunderstandings when Naz can’t figure out how to disable the taxi’s “For Hire” sign. When a young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) gets in his cab and asks to be taken “to the beach,” Naz looks on this as the luckiest night of his life. Well, for awhile…
It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Naz and Andrea have quite a night together involving drugs, alcohol, sex and a little game involving a knife. When Naz awakens some hours later, he discovers that Andrea is dead, having been stabbed multiple times. Naz makes several decisions here, decisions that are critical to the rest of the series, points I will not disclose here. We know that he’s going to get caught, arrested and tried for the murder. What we don’t know is how it’s all going to play out.
The Night Of presents the tension-filled nightmare journey of Naz and his struggles, but also adds supporting characters such as a shyster lawyer named John Stone (John Turturro), a weary, close-to-retirement police detective named Dennis Box (Bill Camp), and a prison inmate named Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), a convict who seems to have the entire prison in the palm of his hand. These characters – all of whom could easily star in their own separate movies – are not only extraordinarily well-written but also expertly realized by their actors.
Stone suffers from an advanced case of eczema, noticeably visible to anyone he encounters since he can only wear sandals. Yet we wouldn’t be surprised to find him considered a pariah even if his skin condition were normal; he dresses in a drab olive-colored overcoat, looks like he just woke up from a three-day bender, and probably smells bad. This guy makes Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul look like a GQ model. We know Stone is smart, but we wonder how someone so smart got so sidetracked in his career and his life. Turturro knows how to make Stone’s confidence, vulnerability, despair, and sudden bursts of genius come alive, never overplaying any aspect of his character. It’s a masterful performance.
No less so is that of Bill Camp as the detective who’s seen it all and is tired of it all. We first see Box interrogating Naz just after he’s been brought into the precinct. We know that Box has done this so many times he’s practically on autopilot, but we also know that he knows Naz is totally out of his element here; Box can either seek to yank a confession out of this frightened college kid or he can gently ask questions that respect the young man’s fragile state. Or maybe he can do both. Or neither. Regardless of whether Box is talking to a suspect, other officers, the press, or confused/angry parents of the accused, he’s always thinking. Watch how Camp plays each of these scenes. Box is a careful observer and you can see him thinking two or three steps ahead, knowing how to respond to each scenario, never allowing himself to be unprepared for any situation. Yet just from watching his eyes, we sense the weariness in his life. He’s done this so well and for so long there are few challenges left anymore. He’s such a great character I’d pay money to see a movie that explores how he went from a rookie to a master detective.
Michael Kenneth Williams nearly steals the show as Freddy, and with the company of fine actors he’s around, that’s saying something. As soon as Naz enters prison, he immediately attracts the attention of Freddy, who has his own spacious private cell (which is stocked with so many items, legal or otherwise, it might as well be called a resort) and seems to control just about every aspect of the goings-on at the prison. Freddy offers Naz protection while he’s in stir and neither Naz nor we initially understand what’s behind all this. Freddy is sometimes cryptic, sometimes philosophical, and sometimes forthcoming toward Naz. He’s holding several cards and occasionally offers Naz (and us) a glimpse at one or two of them. Williams displays amazing range and restraint as Freddy, a man who’s clearly trapped within the system, but who’s able to exercise a tremendous amount of freedom and power. He’s easily one of the most fascinating characters in the series.
And that brings us to Naz. I don’t want to tell you too much about his character’s transformation over the course of the series, but I will say that Ahmed makes what could’ve been a rather far-fetched change believable. In a performance that walks a fine line between reservation and indignation, Ahmed convinces us to buy a package we might have been highly skeptical about purchasing.
But none of these fine performances would matter without a good story. Steven Zaillian (whose work goes all the way back to 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman and includes work on Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball and others) and Richard Price, award-winning novelist (Freedomland, Lush Life, and most recently The Whites) and screenwriter (The Color of Money, The Wire), deliver an enormously compelling story that does what all great TV shows and mini-series do: keeps the viewer clicking on the “play next episode” menu option. While The Night Of contains many subplots (perhaps too many), they rarely feel anything less than organic. Even when they don’t, they’re so interesting you really don’t mind.
Even so, not quite everything in The Night Of comes off as a home run. Without getting into spoiler territory, some of the series’ resolutions are a little too convenient: events occur at the prison at just the right (or wrong) time, witnesses see things at just the right (or wrong) time, etc. Part of this is simply comes with the territory. Your mileage (or suspensions of disbelief, if you will) may vary. But I think it’s a safe bet to say that if you enjoy crime stories, The Night Of will scratch that particular itch (with apologies to John Stone’s eczema).
The show has been showered with several Emmy nominations:
Limited Series, Limited Series Actor (Riz Ahmed, John Turturro), Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie (Bill Camp, Michael Kenneth Williams), Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special (James Marsh, Steve Zaillian), Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Drama (Richard Price and Steven Zaillian), Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special (Avy Kaufman & Sabrina Hyman), Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie (Fred Elmes).
Right now is a perfect time to take a chance on the show. The entire mini-series is currently available on Blu-ray for only $11.99.