minor spoilers ahead
It’s no secret that procedurals have managed to dominate much of the network airwaves. Law and Order, CSI, NCIS—The Night Of reads like the tortured love child from a marriage between these and the recent wave of prestige Breaking Bad-era TV-filmmaking. Yet the show is adapted by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian from the 2008-9 British series Criminal Justice, before the tragic death of James Gandolfini forced the 2012-shot pilot into temporary limbo until his eventual replacement by John Turturro as the lawyer.
Turturro doesn’t show up till late to the episode, which is fine because Riz Ahmed owns “The Beach” as Nasir “Naz” Khan. He first shows up as a Pakistani-American college student and tutor, dressed up for a party too cool for him while driving his father’s cab. But the teen comedy premise never comes to fruition. Any sense of humor is bled away in the muted grey palette, shot in nothing but moody shadows on battered precincts and lonely streets. Interspersed with grainy security footage, the dread begins to accumulate in the stomach like a slow, ulcerous leak.
The initial half is shrouded in so much foreshadowing there’s never any doubt what will happen when Naz picks up mystery woman Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia). Two of my least favorite archetypes: Bumbling nerd meets too-hot party girl/femme fatale and they fall into a bed in a whirlwind romance of drugs and shared secrets. Black D’Elia manages to impart enough humanity among all the jagged shards of cynicism and armor, but the part’s written too thin. She’s a plot device, and you can feel it.
But Riz Ahmed’s Naz is not. His wide eyes alone calibrate a hundred distinct modes of panic, shock, and aching vulnerability in the 80-minute run time. He evokes so much guilty empathy I needed to look away. I want to shout at him for every single incriminating mistake. But as he falls deeper down the rabbit hole, you can see why Naz trusts Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), a man so effective, so humanely reasonable, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself forgoing a lawyer and disregarding every crime drama you’ve ever seen.
From a few lines of soft-spoken dialogue, Box conveys thirty years of world-weary cop without the grandstanding or the Scotch or the legal tricks. All he does is explain to you the rules and your rights. He does his job with a mind-numbing, competent efficiency, and you know that until he grows, Naz will never have a chance. The interrogation and examination scenes between the two of them are an exercise in quiet, riveting tension. Yet they’re grounded in a horrifyingly mundane realism that turns other procedurals on the screen into clunky theatrics.
Sometimes this runs counter to the contrivances of the murder plot and the occasional punctuations of sizzling black humor. But from Price’s gritty novels and TV work to Zaillian’s movie pedigree, both bring an uncommon amount of pedigree in depicting police bureaucracy. Played by a bullpen of talented character actors, these cops are overworked and make mistakes, but their flawed humanity and occasional brutality are never generically vilified.
In this, The Night Of reminds me a great deal of Spike Lee’s Inside Man, another work that stumbled—often effectively–between heavy-handedness and nuance, and you hope Price and Zaillian can maintain the balance. There’s no running away from the post-9/11 Islamophobia which Naz faces, especially rebooted and refreshed in a 2016 rife with ISIL/ISIS news.* Turturro’s lawyer calls him Gunga Din before also displaying his bona fides on Pakistan and dropping the barest hint of transgender nomenclature politics. Even minor characters talk with such verve and specificity about Manhattan’s dividing lines that even a non-native can pick out all the simmering class resentments. To everyone, there’s a street you don’t go past, and The Night Of plays with the rich toy box of the real world in the same way Price’s The Wire used Baltimore.
To be frank, the bones of the show are actually fairly boring. All of the plot can be compressed into the first two minutes of a Law and Order opener. What’s truly exciting about the show is how perfectly it encapsulates the zeitgeist, demonstrating refreshing relevancy and verisimilitude in a broken world of Freddie Grays, Eric Garners, and Laquan McDonalds. Every spoken word is a loaded gun. Every scene is Exhibit A. Through the tragic circumstances of its delay, The Night Of arrives at the exact right time.
* Shot in 2012, set in 2014, and airing in 2016, the show demonstrates some of its age. Knicks fans’ hearts will be re-crushed revisiting the Carmelo and Amar’e pairing.