Now that the HBO limited series The Night Of concluded on Sunday, praise for the crime drama is pouring in. I’m going to add to that praise by stating that this was one of the finest police/courtroom procedural dramas I’ve watched in a long time. What makes The Night Of unique in its excellence is how well the creators of this show were able to defy expectations. Expectations about the arc of the characters, expectations about their motivations, and expectations about type casting. Stories that involve men with brown skin and Muslim backgrounds reinforce the stereotype that they are either terrorists, rapists, or generally up to no good. The Night Of does not skirt these stereotypes — at least in how other characters view the main character Nazir Kahn (as played by Riz Ahmed) — but the creators of the show play with perception and reality in ways that’s unexpected.
The set up is fairly simple: Nazir is in his early 20s, in college, tutors basketball players on the side, lives at home, and seems like a good, but somewhat awkward, kid from Queens. One night, Naz gets invited to a party in Manhattan, but gets stood up by a friend before he’s set to go. So he takes his dad’s taxi (without telling him), gets lost in Manhattan, and ends up with a young woman (Andrea, played by Sophia Black D’Elia) in the back seat of his cab. Through the course of the evening, Naz (who is, on the surface, fairly clean cut) ends up drinking with Andrea (he doesn’t drink), taking drugs with her (he doesn’t take drugs) and having sex with her in her house (he’s only had sex one other time).
Post-coital, Naz wakes up in Andrea’s kitchen, and is a bit bleary-eyed from his drug and alcohol fueled tryst with Andrea. He walks upstairs to her bedroom to say goodbye, only to find her dead with multiple stab wounds. In a panic, he runs out of the house to his cab, only to realize that he doesn’t have his keys. So, he breaks a window on Andrea’s front door, cuts his hand in the process, grabs his keys and a knife that (presumably) was used to kill her, and flees the scene of the crime. After a wrong turn in his cab, Naz is pulled over by police, and through a series of unfortunate events, he becomes the prime suspect in the murder.
The Night Of is so compelling because the set-up is so strong, and the characters are drawn so well, that it’s very difficult not to get hooked. And as it is with procedurals where the police and lawyers dig into the lives of people, the more we as viewers know about the principle players, the more we are aware that all is not what it seems. Good kids aren’t always so good, bad people aren’t always outwardly bad, and the criminal justice system is rife with apathy and laziness that corrupts the system in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Moreover, there’s an all-enveloping milieu of claustrophobia that keeps the tension level high in episode after episode. Credit the cinematography of Igor Martinovic and Robert Elswit and Steven Zaillian’s direction. Of course, without a stellar cast, The Night Of could have been a ho-hum affair.
In addition to Riz Ahmed’s slow transformation from nervous and awkward kid to hardened prisoner, John Turturro’s portrayal of an asthmatic bottom-feeder lawyer — who has a bad skin condition and a cat allergy — is probably one of the best performances he’s done in his career. The other standouts are Michael Kenneth Williams as Freddy, the cruel, but intellectually curious prison boss, Bill Camp as Detective Box, Jeannie Berlin as Helen Weiss, an assistant DA prosecuting Naz for murder, and Amara Karan as Chandra Kapoor — Naz’s lead lawyer in his trial. Naz’s parents (played by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) are wonderful as an immigrant couple who have a limited understanding of the mores of living in New York City. Yes, they have worked hard to achieve a middle class lifestyle, have raised two kids who are more American than Pakistani, and there are many moments when the husband and wife quietly struggle to wade through the morass of the criminal justice system, the wary-looks and social shunning they have to endure by their own community and the wider society, and pained looks on their faces when they sit in the courtroom and hear graphic stories about how their ”good son” isn’t all that good.
Of course, the burning question is: did Naz kill Andrea? He’s not sure because he blacked out before finding her body. There are other suspects who may or may not have murdered the girl, but when we do find out who killed her, there are more than a few moments when one is not sure what awaits Naz. Freedom or prison? Pesky ethics get in the way and make the central players in Naz’s defense and prosecution have to make some hard choices.
Now that the series has concluded, this is a prime time to binge watch this show on HBO. There so much compelling TV here, that you’ll be hooked from the get-go. So go forth and binge on The Night Of (if you haven’t already seen it), and you’ll come away extremely satisfied with this dark and tortuous journey.