There’s a lot to unpack in The Night Of. It’s part murder mystery, part quirky character piece, and part critique of the criminal justice system, all unfurling in a gritty realization of New York. It’s hard to do anything unique within this genre, but HBO’s latest delves into often unexplored aspects of the legal system, and with the help of some outstanding performances is a far more textured example of a crime procedural.
It’s a series of mistakes that by Naz that leads him in to a whole heap of trouble. After absconding with his father’s taxi, meeting a girl, forging a intense connection, and then spending the night, he awakens from a drug fueled stupor to find blood on his hands and her body, stabbed 22 times by a nearby knife. It’s not exactly clear-cut whether or not he is responsible, and that’s the point. The doubt is what’s explored here. The burden of truth is on the side of the defense while the police and prosecutors think his conviction is something of a foregone conclusion. As the series progresses, details are picked apart in the way you’d expect, but it’s the experience of being within the criminal system and the effect it has on Naz which is the focus.
Starting as a doe-eyed lad, then shell shocked murder suspect, Naz is slowly broken down until he’s unrecognizable from the youth in the first episode. Is he guilty now because of the evidence or because of what he’s experienced? The Night Of is a tale of lost innocence, the hardening of a man as he struggles to survive within the prison environment while the world around him contributes to his fall. His race, his beliefs, and persecution heaped upon him and his family all fold into the process, while revelations of drug dealing and other shady behavior cloud perceptions of him further. Despite the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” there is a bias that permeates the criminal justice system, and that is put under scrutiny here.
Riz Ahmed, who has been quietly making his mark with excellent performances in films such as Four Lions and Nightcrawler, does great work here. He sells the innocence, ambiguity, and descent of a man who is weak, demonstrating subservient behavior while eliciting sympathy for his downfall. John Turturro is excellent as his lawyer Jack Stone, a man bogged down by his own problems, something of an “ambulance chaser” when it comes to pursuing justice but a man who does the right thing. Mention should also go to Bill Camp with an understated performance as Detective Dennis Box. Despite seeming like a by the book cop, it’s a refreshing aspect of the series when he is involved in some “actual policing.” It gives a glimmer of hope that there are no foregone conclusions; there are those who do their jobs and don’t just accept things at face value.
Co-creators and writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian deliver some superb work in the first few episodes, aided by the compact nature of the story unfurling over a few days. The later episodes do lose some cohesion, though, compounded by a change in pace and some slightly out of character choices (wtf Chandra) as well as other tropes you’d expect from the genre. Some of the subtext in the show is obvious, others more subtle. It’s a layered piece, and while it’s not offering anything radical in terms of the crime procedural, it’s more considered than most.
THE PACKAGEThe Night Of showcases a real cinematic quality, a gritty, textured, lived in representation of New York, which is represented very well in the release. Detail is sharp, blacks deep, the Blu-ray transfer looks great. All 8 episodes of the mini-series are spread over three discs, inside a case with a slipcover.
Surprisingly, aside from a digital copy, the release contains no special features. Nothing that touches on how the show was adapted from the original BBC series Criminal Justice. Considering the complicated production of the show, there is likely plenty of material that could have been included, notably the unaired pilot with James Gandolfini, who was attached to the series for years before his sudden death. No commentaries, no interviews, nothing. There is much of the process that would be of great interest to see how HBO navigated such issues to get a final product this good. Disappointing.
THE BOTTOM LINEThe Night Of is an engrossing murder mystery that delves into a indictment of the US justice system, as well as our approach to race and religion in this country. These aspects, as well as the performances of Ahmed and Turturro, make for a engaging viewing experience. Fans of the show expecting more content and insight will be disappointed by the release, with no extras included. But this doesn’t detract from the show itself, another polished effort from HBO.
The Night Of is available from HBO Entertainment from October 18th, 2016.