The latest HBO drama The Night Of starts promisingly, but is it great television?
The newest prestige HBO drama The Night Of shows all the signs of being a strong entry in HBO’s cache of quality television. It offers an intriguing murder mystery peppered with interesting characters and allusions to larger social issues. It does exactly what it should to warrant awards consideration. HBO certainly seems high on it. It released the series on HBO Go and HBO Now the same night as the Game of Thrones season finale, giving the show an enviable platform from which to spring. Then, given all of this, why doesn’t the drama feel like more of a revelation?
Originally conceived as a vehicle for James Gandolfini prior to his death, The Night Of stars John Turturro as attorney Jack Stone. Late in the pilot, Stone takes the case of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American boy accused of brutally murdering a beautiful woman in her bed. The events of the pilot unfold over a single night as Khan digs himself deeper and deeper into unavoidable danger. It’s what happens when one makes the wrong choices at literally every turn.
The drama unfolds over the first hour-plus of the miniseries in an entertaining fashion. There’s a certain sick perversion over watching someone as inexperienced and unthinking as Khan stumble into danger. The series seems to be well aware of that fact. Yet, the audience is unaware of a central handful of minutes where the murder was committed. The evidence clearly stacks up against Khan. So much so, in fact, that the length of the 8-night mini-series feels daunting given the mountain of evidence and suspicious behavior.
But that is also part of the problem with The Night Of. NPR’s Serial, Netflix’s Making a Murderer and HBO’s own The Jinx encouraged American audiences to become armchair detectives and attorneys. It doesn’t take eagle-eyed viewers to see the groundwork laid for Turtorro’s Stone to make swift work of the eventual prosecution’s case. A witness omits some detail of his evening. Evidence is obtained under questionable circumstances. Police work fails to follow proper protocol. To me, the possibilities feel obvious and unquestionable. Perhaps that’s not what the mini-series is ultimately after. Last year’s Show Me a Hero dealt with the socio-political implications of urban development, and The Night Of seems similarly poised to take on cultural inequities in urban America.
As the focal point of the pilot, Riz Ahmed delivers a capably naive performance. He’s a scared child in a young man’s body. He panics admirably. He makes beautifully convincing mistakes. He glances at other actors and the camera with the appropriate amount of beaten puppy-dog eyes. He makes for a compellingly emotional center, even if he may be extremely guilty. Time will tell on that score. Turturro is only given a handful of scenes, but they’re as memorable as you’d expect given the calibre of the actor. I do look forward to experiencing the case’s unravelling with this brilliant actor. This role should put him into contention at next year’s Emmy ceremony if the series is a more uncertain entry.
Given the pedigree of writer Richard Price and director Steven Zaillian, I did expect more from the pilot. I’ll certainly wait until the entire series unfolds before making judgment, but the heavy mantle of “prestige HBO drama” weighs down the hour. You watch it never bored but expect much, much more. Such slow burn pieces require a great deal of expectation setting. As long as you have that in check, then you should enjoy this solid piece of filmmaking.