John Turturro is probably the biggest name appearing in HBO’s new limited series The Night of, while British actor Riz Ahmed plays the drama’s central figure, but the dark, lurching, spirit-crushing star, both protagonist and antagonist, is the American criminal justice system. It takes some moxie to tackle an entire institutional infrastructure and make gripping television, especially to do so on a network where David Simon has made a critically adored cottage industry of such storytelling, but Richard Price and Steven Zaillian don’t lack for ambition, mostly realized.
The Night of follows Nasir “Naz” Khan (Ahmed), an American-born college student of Pakistani descent. After sneaking out of the family home in Queens, Naz heads into the city for a party, but instead spends a wild night with a beautiful stranger (Sofia Black D’Elia). When Naz wakes up to find the girl stabbed to death, his series of questionable decisions lead to incarceration. Dennis Box (Bill Camp), a world-weary detective on the verge of retirement, is convinced he has the right man and is determined to prove it. Ambulance chasing attorney Jack Stone (Turturro) senses something is wrong with the case and is determined to stand up for Naz. The series follows Naz’s case as it becomes a media circus, as he struggles to find his footing in Rikers and as it goes to trial, changing Naz and Stone and Box along the way.
HBO has wisely made the first installment of The Night of available well ahead of the series’ July 10 on-air premiere, hoping that the tremendous opening 79 minutes will bring notice to a project that has more star power in its arduous path to the small screen — the late James Gandolfini, still credited as an executive producer, and then Robert De Niro were initially supposed to topline — than made it to air. Perhaps learning from the top-heavy True Detective casting strategy, the ensemble of The Night of more than makes up for in depth what it lacks in A-list glitz, filling even the smallest parts with intriguing performers and intriguing characters. Such is the nature of this cast that Peyman Moaadi, internationally celebrated lead in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, slots into a supporting role and feels neither wasted nor woefully overqualified. He’s just part of the tapestry, like Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot the premiere and cedes to acclaimed documentary DP Igor Martinovic and then venerable indie favorite Frederick Elmes for the home stretch, or like Fargo composer Jeff Russo, whose cello-centric score fuels the mood, whether mournful or hopeful.
The maestros are Price, who wrote or co-wrote every installment, and Zaillian, who directed every hour but the fourth, which was handled by Oscar winner James Marsh (Man on Wire), no slouch. Based on Peter Moffat’s British format, Price gives the story a novelistic structure and propulsion, but also lets Zaillian steer with a style that I’d oxymoronically call dexterously ponderous. Every frame is weighty with information and significance, but for at least five or six hours, Zaillian’s heavy hand feels like a sturdy guide, rather than a nudging impediment. HBO made seven out of the eight episodes available for critics, and while The Night of becomes increasingly conventional and even periodically frustrating and nonsensical as it veers into the inevitable trial, I was far too invested to be derailed.
The investment comes courtesy of a pilot that’s overstuffed with purpose. It’s nearly half finished before the central crime has been committed, but Price and Zaillian make sure that viewers have geographically charted Naz’s odyssey, eyeballed every potential witness and filled away piles of seemingly random details that could prove to be either evidentiary or worthless. As the noose breathlessly tightens in the second half of the premiere, some of that evidence has already come into play, but some is still lingering through to the climax. Any time a detective or a lawyer pokes around the crime scene, every time we’re party to an interrogation, every time any character’s eye wanders, we’re accumulating data and processing it. As we get to the yet-unseen finale, the truth is either going to feel like an organic vindication of your ability to pay attention or a cheat and a betrayal of Zaillian’s process. Since certain courtroom antics in later episodes already felt like a cheat, I’m somewhat cautious, since the otherwise revered True Detective already served as a cautionary tale on what happens if you deliver an ending that’s even intentionally anti-climactic.
Maybe the finale will be an indictment of Naz or one of several other suspects, or maybe it will be an indictment of a legal industrial complex that commodifies every inmate, that benefits from churning through every case at a pace dictated by expediency and not truth, that turns lawyers into leaches and con-men, cops into manipulators and desensitized adjudicators, defendants into unfeeling pawns and monsters. The Night of is an extended procedural in which the key players are smartly steering the proceedings, but also being steered powerlessly by justice’s machinery.
Or maybe the series will end up being an indictment of viewers. Like I said, Price and Zaillian have given us a lot to think about, but are we interpreting the evidence correctly? Will our own predictive flaws be brought on by a lack of attention or by our own prejudices? Are we jumping to conclusions based on Naz’s Muslim faith, his education, his initial politeness? Does Detective Box’s tenure and his love of opera make us view his motives accurately? Are we selling Stone short when we laugh at his subway ads and his parallel quest to cure the nasty eczema that leaves him unable to wear shoes?
And what’s with Stone’s eczema, which gets way more screen time than you’d expect, anyway? Is it comic relief? Is it the thing that makes Stone an outsider and thus a sympathetic peer to Naz? Is it a rashy metaphor for Stone’s itch for justice? Is it a more elevated metaphor for any compulsive quest for answers, the sense that any malady ought to be curable, that any crime ought to be solvable?
Yeah, it’s all those things and it’s also OK if the eczema is just there so that Turturro has something to play, a dimension around which to base the way Stone sits, the way he walks and the way that people look at him and judge him. Adding welcome humor to the high-stakes action, Turturro keeps us guessing on whether Stone is a good lawyer or just a man trained at working the system, and that’s intriguing. It’s also an open question on whether Camp’s Box is a talented detective or a relic who should be put out to pasture, but the veteran character actor is relishing a rare lead role and it’s possible that the part works even better with less of a “name” actor and more an actor who fits in this ensemble of theater and prestige TV vets.
Ahmed foregrounds Naz’s vulnerability, but shows other sides in ways that don’t violate the character. It’s Ahmed’s performance, coupled with reliably threatening-but-erudite work from Michael K. Williams as a King Rat-style inmate, that keeps the Rikers Island material from feeling like a rehash of Oz and its myriad prison imitators.
Just as Moaadi is an asset whenever his character, Naz’s taxi driver father, is onscreen, the valuable pieces in the “no small parts” ensemble include Poorna Jagannathan, Paul Sparks, J.D. Williams, Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly and Chip Zien. There are surprising one-scene appearances from members of the Turturro family, several actors who have recently been regulars on cable dramas and several recognizable rappers-turned-actors. You could think, “Is playing a wry desk sergeant in a couple episodes really the best use of Emmy nominee Ben Shenkman?” or you could think, “Is this show improved by casting even small roles with this much care?”
Great care has been taken in almost every aspect of bringing the former Gandolfini passion project to TV. That care may peak early with a premiere that should be in Emmy consideration at this time next year, but subsequent episodes still hold an elevated, pulpy crime novel feel, dampened only slightly as contrivances begin to settle in.
Cast: John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, Bill Camp, Michael K. Williams, Peyman Moaadi, Poorna Jagannathan, Glenne Headly, Amara Karan
Based on the format by: Peter Moffatt
Executive producers: Steven Zaillian and Richard Price
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)