Editor’s Note: This article contains mild spoilers.
The world of cops, judges, and lawyers is one that sorts the people who come within its grasp. That’s at least the case in crime fiction like HBO’s darkly sparkling new noir miniseries The Night Of. It’s generally a binary thing, without much shading.
On the “bad guy” side you have the serial offenders, the mopes who always just happen to be near the guy doing something bad, and stay out of jail by dint of a lucky break. Familiar with all the conventions, they can practically finish their lawyer’s sentences. It’s an acting job, and they’ve got a role. (Someday, somebody will write a great crime novel tracing the arc of one repeat criminal in full circuit through the criminal justice system; its normality shouldn’t be a deficit.)
On the “good guy” side, there are the civilians. These are the ones who the cops are surprised to see. Confused and lost, they’re unfamiliar with the script of bookings, arraignments, summonses, and bail hearings. They also just don’t look right for the part. Since they’re black swans, these characters make frequent appearances in the crime genre. Because they’re new to the process, they’re introduced to it at the same pace as the viewer or reader.
In its premiere episode, “The Beach”, The Night Of couldn’t have presented a more perfect civilian than Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed). A college student from Jackson Heights, Queens, he still lives at home with his Pakistan-born parents. A tutor for one of the basketball players at his school, Naz is shocked to be invited to one of their parties. A couple decisions provide a sense of just how buttoned-up his life has been and how eager he is to crack out of that shell, even if for just one night.
First, Naz borrows his father’s cab for the night without asking. Then, driving lost through downtown Manhattan, after shooing away prospective fares, he allows a young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) to stay in the cab after she hops in. The party disappears from his mental radar. Instead, Naz is going to follow your lead, as one imagines he’s been doing with stronger, more assertive personalities ever since grade school. That includes driving where she wants and ingesting whatever substances this smoky-eyed club girl with the prematurely bored affect pushes at him. He even lets her talk him into playing a very poorly thought-out game with a knife.
Director Steve Zallian and cinematographer Robert Elswit conjure up a woozy late-night improvisational feel for the start to writer Richard Price’s story. It’s all smeary lights and live-for-the-night risk-taking. There’s a hint of the tensions to come when a guy passing on the sidewalk as Naz and the woman are entering her townhouse says to him,”Leave your bomb at home, Mustafa?”
But once Naz wakes up from the pill- and booze-induced hammering his consciousness took, the episode snaps into focus. The plot device become clear, with Naz’s discovery of the woman dead from multiple stab wounds and his being picked up for drunk driving not long after, a bloody knife in his pocket. The style also executes a 90-degree pivot, turning hard from a potentially unreliable narrator mystery centered on a dead femme fatale into a cleanly lensed and nuanced procedural.
This second part of the episode is where a writer like Price earns his fee. His writing for the big screen has never quite stood up to small-screen work like The Wire or his novels. The former have always seemed more hired-pen material, the latter an organic outgrowth of his deeply mined knowledge of the city’s criminal justice substrata.
The real New York kick comes from Price’s ability to thread his research with strands of black, barkingly funny cynicism. Dialogue like the cop who snaps “don’t give me that shit about life being cheap above 96th Street”, or the one who refers to the crime scene as looking like the “Battle of Gettysburg”, have a lived-in “what the fuck now?” aggravation that inoculates the show against the self-importance of state-of-the-city edifices like The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Once Naz is in the system, it’s hard not to think that the story will go down that Tom Wolfe route. It has all the ingredients required for a three-ring media circus: wealthy and attractive white woman brutally slain in an Upper West Side townhouse by a Muslim cabdriver. That element is mostly kept back for this episode, though. After the particulars of the crime and Naz’s take on it have been established, Price tracks Naz as he moves through the first stages of his almost inevitable arrest.
Ahmed’s casting as Naz is key to the success of these scenes, almost as much as Zallian’s emotive directing and Price’s sharply honed dialogue. A slight, young presence with big doe eyes and an air of thoughtful decency, Ahmed doesn’t scan as killer, for the audience or the police. He’s the prototypical “good kid”, after all, with no rap sheet, two loving parents, and seemingly as much aptitude for murder as Bambi.
Because of that, The Night Of can more successfully situate the viewer in Naz’s position. That makes for a powerfully empathetic experience. By the end of the episode, the average viewer might be able to understand, even just a little bit better, how it is that an innocent person can be talked into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. After the third or fourth episode, they’ll be wondering how they could avoid jumping out a window, were they in Naz’s shoes.
Playing off against Ahmed are a couple pros who more than earn their keep. As the opera-loving and ever-so-slightly misanthropic Box, lead investigator on the case, Bill Camp delivers his world-weary lines with a dry wit that goes down smooth. Seeing a uniformed officer vomiting outside the crime scene, Box deadpans a joke that’s really an order, “do that that in the trunk … this is a nice neighborhood.”
Lurching into the story late in the first episode like a walking punch-line, John Turturro’s eczema-afflicted Jack Stone is a legal bottom-feeder of sorts. (Stone was originally played by James Gandolfini, given a posthumous executive producer credit here; Turturro took over after the actor’s death in 2013.) But when he gets a glimpse of the charges on Naz, Stone decides to improve his clientele list by working a real case. His status as a liked but lowly “precinct crawler” in the plea-bargain assembly line masquerading as a legal system is illustrated by the number of people surprised as his snagging such a high profile case and saying, “good job”.
Box and Stone, as tough-minded souls with a frosty demeanor and a flinty heart of gold or at least silver, occupy the noir morality middle ground between the seeming innocence of Naz and the venality of the even more cynical professionals who swoop in later on in The Night Of. That both inhabit such well-recognizable types doesn’t hurt their staying power here, any more than the show as a whole is undermined by how much of it hinges on the bloodied and naked corpse of a beautiful young woman who partied too much. At least in the first four episodes, the weight of such clichés doesn’t appear likely to weigh the show down, even though they can distract from Price’s noir reportage.
More potentially problematic would be Price’s over-reliance on Stone’s health issues for comic relief. Also, the introduction of Michael K. Williams as a criminal boss who befriends Naz at Rikers Island — a particularly ugly segment of later episodes that pulls all too vividly from recent of that prison’s anything-goes corruption culture — presents some issues. Williams is a welcome addition to just about anything, but his character is either a too-hard-to-believe tarnished good soul, or a clumsy setup for a later betrayal.
Eventually, The Night Of will get down to the business of determining whether or not Naz actually did the deed. That may provide dramatic closure. But it will also probably become that much less interesting once we actually find out whether or Naz really is the prototypical “good kid”.