HBO’s new eight-part miniseries The Night Of tells the story of one supremely unlucky young man who ends up on trial for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. We know this because, as viewers, we are right there with Nasir Khan — played by the soon-to-be superstar Riz Ahmed — for every moment in the unlikely series of events that leaves a girl he met just hours earlier dead in her own bed.
This knowledge of what happened on the night of the murder is what sets the fictional show apart from the documentary-style series with which it otherwise has a great deal in common. Over the past few years, the podcast Serial, along with HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, have each captivated the nation by examining real-life murder cases in which an enormous amount of doubt is cast on the guilt or innocence of the accused.
In both Serial and Making a Murderer, we follow the story of men who have been convicted of crimes that, we begin to believe, they could not possibly have committed. In The Jinx, we examine the life of a man who appears to have killed several different people and continues to gets away with it. But in each of those cases, we simply don’t know the truth.
By contrast, because The Night Of is a fictional story — based on the 2008 British series Criminal Justice — we get to be there with the alleged killer at the scene of the crime. The picture we are given by co-creators Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Schindler’s List, and Richard Price, an acclaimed novelist who wrote for The Wire, is so much richer and fuller than what amounts to guesswork in those documentaries.
The influence of David Simon’s The Wire, still the best piece of popular culture about the criminal justice system ever created, is all over The Night Of. J.D. Williams, who played Bodie, makes an early, crucial appearance as a unreliable witness and Michael K. Williams, best known as President Obama’s favorite gay hitman Omar Little, is a major presence as Nasir’s menacing prison protector. But more importantly, Price helps infuse this show with the same considered, thoughtful approach to storytelling that Simon instilled in The Wire.
Just as we saw every angle of Baltimore’s inner-city life through the eyes of gang members, police officers, school children, politicians and more on The Wire, here we experience the central murder case not only from the defendant’s point of view, but also through his helplessly desperate Pakistani parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), his disheveled but dedicated attorney (an idiosyncratic John Turturro), the meticulous detective in charge of the case (Bill Camp, brilliantly understated) and others.
As Nasir is first arrested, practically by accident, for the murder and is subsequently placed in a holding cell, brought to a terrifying Riker’s Island and then ultimately to trial, The Night Of emphasizes the many unfair and often arbitrary forces at work in a fundamentally broken system. Glenne Headly, portraying a high-end lawyer who offers to defend Nasir pro bono for wholly selfish reasons, at one point remarks that holding the college-educated defendant with no prior record at Riker’s as he awaits trial is akin to turning him into the criminal the state already believes him to be.
Over the course of the seven episodes provided to press, that dire prediction is essentially borne out. Ahmed, who many viewers will recognize as Jake Gyllenhaal’s reluctant accomplice from the excellent Nightcrawler, gradually becomes less innocent as the series progresses. It is mostly out of necessity in a prison environment full of imminent danger — Orange Is the New Black, this is not. But we can see that at least a small part of him enjoys leaving his purity behind, just as he did on a smaller scale in the moments leading up to the crime that would forever change his life.
In addition to Ahmed, Turturro makes a big impact as attorney John Stone, a part that was originally going to be played by James Gandolfini, who helped shepherd the project to HBO close to a decade ago. After Gandolfini’s untimely death, it was rumored that Robert De Niro would use the series to make his television debut. Either of those actors would no doubt have been exceptional in the role, but Turturro, who spends most of the series suffering through a gnarly skin condition on his feet, makes it his own.
Elsewhere throughout the show are subtler performances from a murderers’ row (pun intended) of character actors. There’s Veep’s Kevin Dunn, popping up in just one scene as another frustrated bureaucrat on the police force who wakes up in the middle of the night to deal with the fallout of the high-profile crime. There’s television vet Ben Shenkman as a desk sergeant, who has no patience for those who don’t understand his specific brand of precinct lingo. And Paul Sparks (novelist Tom Yates on House of Cards) as the victim’s eerily unmoved and suspicious step-father.
The Sri Lankan actress Amara Karan, who made her film debut in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, is incredibly affecting as a young lawyer who first joins the case as nothing more than a Southeast Asian prop to appease Nasir’s parents, but soon becomes a vital member of his defense team. Like Law & Order, which covers some of the same territory in a far more simplistic fashion and gets a jokey mention late in the series, The Night Of is a treasure trove of working New York actors who lend an important veracity to the proceedings.
But through it all, it is Ahmed who carries The Night Of. The transformation that his character makes as a result of the ordeal he’s put through is not only aesthetic, but also affects the way he walks, speaks and thinks about the world around him. The British actor is poised to have a year not unlike what Ireland’s Domhnall Gleeson experienced in 2015 when he appeared in Ex Machina, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant.
Following his turn in The Night Of, Ahmed will star opposite Matt Damon in Jason Bourne this summer and as one of the fresh-faced leads of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One this fall. He’s come a long way from his role as a bumbling terrorist wannabe in the 2010 comedy Four Lions.
Listeners and viewers who became obsessed with Serial’s Adnan Syed, The Jinx’s Robert Durst and Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery may have felt like they intimately knew the motivations and inner-workings of these men. But Ahmed’s performance allows this sense of empathy to go much deeper.
We may not know exactly what happened, even after seven episodes, but we know this man. And we know, regardless of how the jury rules, just how badly the criminal justice has already failed him.