It’s been an unbearably cruel summer: a dystopia straight out of the ‘80s, as if we’re all trapped in the film Do the Right Thing with a racist Gordon Gekko vying for Leader of the Free World. We’re in need of a respite from this deluge of tragedy—and oh-so-tragic hot takes—but with Westeros held in abeyance and our collective PTSD from that horrific Orange Is the New Black death having finally subsided, where will those of us averse to Pokémon GO turn?
Enter The Night Of. Though its title screams Christmas flick, HBO’s absorbing new miniseries is a pitch-black procedural that combines the system-is-broken outrage of Making a Murderer, the menacing atmosphere of Oz, and the shameless topicality and plot twists of Law & Order: SVU. And the first of its eight hour-long chapters plays like an elegant, extended version of the first three minutes of SVU.
Our tragic hero is Nasir “Naz” Khan, the bookish college-aged son of Pakistani immigrants. He is played by Riz Ahmed, the versatile young actor who brought hilarity to the role of a bumbling suicide-bomber-to-be in Four Lions and devastated as Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager assistant in Nightcrawler. Naz is invited to a party by one of the athletes he tutors, inveigled by the prospect of coeds. So he steals his father’s taxicab and drives it from Queens to Manhattan for the soiree. Along the way, he accidentally picks up Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia), a young woman whose eyes seduce Naz with their sadness, and before you can chant DUN DUN they’re back at her Upper West Side townhouse shooting tequila, sniffing drugs, playing with knives, and knockin’ boots. Naz passes out, and emerges in a haze to find the mystery woman stabbed to death, the walls a bloody Jackson Pollock.
Naz hightails it out of there and is picked up by the police, surrounded by an orgy of evidence—including a bloody knife in his jacket pocket. The lingering camera technique is used to point to possible clues: What’s up with the blood-smeared moose head? Or the ominous-looking black man at the gas station who followed them in the hearse? Or the other ominous-looking black man accompanying his racist pal who glared at the couple entering the apartment, and was absent when the heckler returned to the scene? Whether or not these are red herrings remains to be seen.
At the precinct, Naz is interrogated by Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), a world-weary gumshoe on the brink of retirement, and scooped up as a client by John Stone (John Turturro), an ambulance-chasing subway-ad attorney eager for a shot at the big-time. “I’m not sayin’ he’s a bad cop—on the contrary, he’s very good,” Stone says of Det. Box. “And like all good cops, he does ya over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor; a subtle beast.” Stone suffers from a nasty case of eczema on his feet, a not-too-heavy-handed metaphor for the perversion of justice, and provides a solid counterweight to Det. Box, who suffers from a surfeit of compassion.
Co-created by the celebrated scribes Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Richard Price (The Wire), and with all but one episode directed by Zaillian, whose playful usage of shadows and tight shots conveys the claustrophobic nightmare that is Naz’s Dante-like descent into hellish Riker’s Island, the bloody rectum of the U.S. criminal justice system. Jeff Russo’s operatic score hits all the right foreboding notes as well.
The Night Of is technically a remake of Peter Moffat’s BBC series Criminal Justice, which starred Ben Whishaw as the unlucky young man who steals his parents’ black cab, is hailed by a girl, pops ecstasy, and wakes up to find her a bloody corpse. It was also meant to star the late James Gandolfini, who has still been given an executive producer credit, and then Robert De Niro, before Turturro filled in. Though after viewing seven of the eight episodes, it’s hard to imagine Gandolfini or De Niro as this sad sack attorney; Turturro makes the role decidedly his.
Whereas the first few episodes unspool the mystery, the middle ones trace Naz’s suspenseful time at Riker’s dodging beatings and shankings. He falls under the wing of Freddy (Michael K. Williams, always brooding, always brilliant), the prison capo, and his frightening evolution from wide-eyed Muslim college kid into full-blown convict recalls the journey of A Prophet.
Though The Night Of lacks the star power of a True Detective, it is all the better for it. Each of its characters is richly-drawn, and bleeds into the gritty scenery—from A Separation’s brilliant Peyman Moaadi as Naz’s beleaguered-yet-devoted father, to The Darjeeling Limited’s Amara Karan as an attorney who believes in Naz, to House of Cards’ Paul Sparks (you know, the guy with the only head of hair to rival Claire Underwood’s) as the victim’s poker-faced stepfather. And each episode leaves you starving for more.
Zaillian and Price’s series paints a disturbing picture of the criminal justice system—and how its intrinsic financial and psychological pressures tear away at one’s soul. Or as Hunter S. Thompson put it: “Justice is expensive in America.”