rethinking boredom: the necessity of quiet in ‘The Night Of’
* minor spoilers follow
More and more, I wonder if Naz did it.
In One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of folk tales, Scheherazade is the young virgin wife of a king who has killed all of his previous ones to avoid spousal infidelity. To circumvent her own death, she tells tale after tale, nested like Russian matryoshka dolls, each intricate and folding back on each other to distract the king until she can survive the necessary year. More and more I wonder if showrunners Zaillian and Price are doing the same thing, to distract us from Naz’s own guilt.
It’s an interesting tack. Sliding into Detective Dennis Box’s (Bill Camp) perspective has had the effect of transferring audience sympathy. We’ll always love Naz (Riz Ahmed) because he was first and because of his enveloping Bambi eyes. But Box is imminently watchable while slowly picking at the chinks in Naz’s gossamer-thin armor, manipulating Naz’s parents and casting doubt on ambulance chaser John Stone (John Turturro). His kindness is a knife wrapped in velvet.
Unfortunately, Zaillian and Price’s choice comes at the cost of a new voice. For a show obsessed with race, you relish the rare opportunity for a Muslim Pakistani to front a show on a premier distributor, but Naz is all reactive, reduced to pleading his innocence. Box’s conversation with him is less verbal fencing and more tapping on the aquarium glass. You never get the feeling Riz Ahmed gets to open up with the necessary subtle sharpness of his own till he finally names Box a “subtle beast” to his parents. It’s part of the requirements of Naz’s arc as he sheds his naivete, but you want more for him to do. Box and Stone threaten to usurp the show as older white men imbued with the majority of the narrative power. And they are powerful, nimble actors. When they talk, you can hear the cracking of the sheathes as they draw their swords.
John Stone in particular gets a fleshed out backstory with a possibly-broken, mixed-race family and eczema. A surprising amount of time is spent on the character’s eczema, which is an interesting, non sequitur subplot that echoes the wonderfully sad clarity of the Spoon Theory in discussing a very common disease and the daily tolls it takes on you. It’s just unclear how this is going to dovetail with everything. What is The Night Of trying to be? A brooding procedural? A black comedy? Or a realistic look at the injustices and dehumanization of criminal justice system?
Equally compelling but more thematic is the story of Naz’s father’s cab. Salim Khan doesn’t give a damn about it; he’s got a bit more on his plate, what with his son’s arrest and all the politely indignant dignity he’s exuding. But the impounding of the cab is affecting his friends, another ripple in the cause-effect pond that is normally overlooked and yet speaks volumes for characters we would never even consider.
It’s strange that these are the moments that linger in my memory when we have a host of compelling new characters. Jeannie Berlin is fantastically off-kilter as D.A. Helen Weiss. Glenne Headly shows up with a touch too-much writerly brio as defense lawyer Alison Crowe. Michael Kenneth Williams gets an even grander entrance as Freddy the prison house king who delivers rambling speeches while forcing you to take vows with your hand on a slab of raw veal. We’re getting diminishing returns with all the actors and actresses we’ve thrown in this giant prestige blender, but it’s not necessarily a problem of quantity. The Night Of is a quiet show thriving on quiet stories, and when it relies on plot and grandiose moments the seams begin to show.
The cop vs. lawyer show is one we’ve all seen, and it’s a good one. We’ve seen prison shows and whodunnits. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. What we haven’t seen enough of is the thousand inexplicable layers of the justice system. The desk sergeant who checks Naz into Rikers. The guard who pats down his mother. The cab drivers and the junior lawyer and the eczema support group. It’s A Thousand and One Nights Of, and it’s time for Zaillian and Price to fully embrace their inner Scheherazade and dive into the distraction.