Co-created by writer/director Steve Zaillian, (Moneyball, All the King’s Men) and novelist Richard Price, whose done his share of screenwriting for TV on The Wire, The Night Of follows the lives of two men struggling to work our complicated and screwed up legal system to prove the innocence of one of them. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) delivers a career breakthrough performance as Nasir Khan, a Pakistani-American college student accused of murdering a rich, beautiful, white woman. He has no alibi except that he blacked out after partying and having sex with her. He woke up only to discover her body butchered in her bed. A wrong turn leads to his arrest and he’s left defenseless.
Enter John Turturro as John Stone, a dogged defense lawyer with a spotty reputation. He’s the kind of attorney who finds his clients by handing his card out to the dregs of society and promising to lessen their jail time. Stone sees something different in Nas that the typical criminals he represents don’t possess. Innocence, perhaps? He feels compelled to help Nas and sticks his neck out for the kid, even after bigger fish push him out of the courtroom. Turtorro embodies Stone with so much melancholy and vinegar that it’s difficult to think of Gandolfini ever in this role. This is some of the finest work of Turturro’s great career, one rivaled only by Ahmed in the series.
The spiritual and physical transformation Nas goes through in the story is pulled off because Ahmed put his body through the same transformation. To watch him go from a naïve, nice guy into a hardened crack addict willing to do whatever it takes to survive in prison is unlike any I’ve seen in a long time. Mark my word, Turturro will be nominated for an Emmy, and he’ll lose to his co-star. If only there could be a tie.
The cast of The Night Of is a wonderful collection of actors, but Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as Omar on The Wire, mesmerizes as Freddy Knight, Nas’ prison protector. Freddy takes Nas under his wing and his intentions remain fuzzy until the final episode. It’s a tender and intense scene that Williams’ delivers with perfection.
Over the eight hours, Zaillian and Price weave the viewer through an intricate plot, much like one of Price’s novels, or an episode of The Wire. Much like that epic series, characters come and go, relations are made and severed, but it’s Nas and Stone who are forever changed. The last ten minutes are tragic, yet like any great story, left me wondering what would happen next. Not that the entire series is a complete downer. The writers wisely pepper the series with a lot of black humor, most of it at Stone’s expense, to lighten the mood.
The makers of Game of Thrones should be happy that The Night Of won’t be in their Emmy category, but Ryan Murphy better watch out, for I can’t see anything topping the acting, writing, and direction of this mini-series. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD, The Night Of is required viewing for lovers of great crime dramas ad quality television in general. Not to be missed.