Synopsis – After a night of partying with a female stranger, a man wakes up to find her stabbed to death and is charged with her murder.
Episodes – Part 1 to Part 8
My Take – When the first teaser of this eight-part mini series was out, it seemed like HBO had finally adapted the long rumored TV version of the widely popular season 1 of the podcast Serial Hosted by Sarah Koenig. Well even though we can find certain similarities between the two accounts, namely the accused being a young American born Pakistani who had little or no memory of the proposed murder act he was arrested for, among many others. And just like the podcast, HBO‘s new crime drama had sucked me in right from the very beginning. Packaged like a cookie cutter crime drama. It has a very traditional structure: a guilty party who is surely innocent, a grizzled detective who is hunting for a conviction and an idealistic defender who is determined to clear his client’s name. Then things begin to twist and turn and before the first hour is done, we are looking at a snapshot of a crime that is fraught with uncertainty: an innocent party who may be guilty, a cop who is less clichéd than he appears and a defender who is equal parts idealist and opportunist. It takes a close look at the process by which a complex murder case is investigated and tried. The show examines an intersection of microcosms within New York City, dramatizing how the US judicial system is shaped by the police force and vice versa, which are both influenced by endless varieties of intangible human factors such as exhaustion, desperation, lust, loneliness, kindness, and both individual and systemic prejudice. Existing as an outgrowth of these relationships is the penal system, which appears to create and destroy more criminals than it redeems. In turn, the system fosters intricate business relationships between guards, gangs, attorneys, therapists, and unaware civilians caught in the crossfire of these machinations. The calm and deliberate presentation of the narrative, uniquely offered without the help of background music to move it along, acts as a call to viewers to pay close attention. As a result, audiences are immediately given the chance to acknowledge things ranging from obvious anti-Muslim bigotry to tiny details that could have a major impact on how the case is resolved.
Co-written by novelist and screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers, The Wire) and directed by writer-filmmaker Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action), it draws out its account of an accused killer’s odyssey through New York City’s criminal-justice system over eight grim yet engrossing hours, lingering on the distinctive language of cops, lawyers, judges, jailhouse guards, accused criminals, convicted felons, and anxious relatives; situating their troubles within the context of a broken system; and finding the pulse in situations and settings that you thought had been done to death. Yes, this may not seem as an innovative series: It’s based on the British mini-series Criminal Justice, created by Peter Moffat, and it follows the Slow TV template recently perfected by the likes of American Crime and The People vs. O.J. Simpson, giving each scene maximum space to breathe, often more than it needs. But the net effect is hypnotic, like reading a fat crime novel filled with memorable characters and atmospheric details. The story follows Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a 20 something American-born college student of Pakistani descent. After sneaking out of the family home with his father’s taxi, Naz heads into the city for a party. Along the way he meets a beautiful young woman, Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia), and his plans change. They go back to her place and after a night of drugs and passion, Naz wakes up to find Andrea stabbed to death. Naz panics and flees the scene, only to be picked up by the police for a traffic offence. Ultimately Naz ends up at the police station, where the police then realize they have the prime suspect in a murder, and Naz is held for questioning. On the case is the methodical, perceptive 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. . Also on the scene is small-time lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro) who senses something is wrong with the case and is determined to stand up for Naz. However, the weight of evidence against Naz is massive and Jack Stone may be out of his depth. The series follows Naz’s case as it becomes a media circus, as he struggles to find his footing in Rikers Island prison and as it goes to trial, changing Naz and Stone and Box along the way. The pilot starts up very slow but builds suspense as it starts to tell the story, and that’s where it shines; in it’s storytelling. It was dramatically convincing and had a pleasantly dark atmosphere.
Naz does absolutely everything he can to frame himself for the murder. It’s actually quite frustrating to watch. However, we still have some sympathy and faith that he is indeed innocent. This sympathy and faith come through the fantastic portrayal of the character, including his family roots, education, racial and religious “underdog” stereotype, and his boyish demeanor. The investigative team, as well as the prosecution, build a case so strong you have no doubt he will be found guilty, but there is still that thread of hope hanging there that he didn’t do it. Just as the defense starts to find holes in the prosecution, and also secrets from the victims past promoting Naz’s innocence, you start to see just how he could possibly be acquitted of this terrible crime. But just as this angle of the story starts to develop you see Naz’s own demons start to surface through his need to survive the harsh reality of prison life in Rikers. With these demons surfacing, it almost counteracts the case being built for him by the defense. Meanwhile his support system starts to corrode around him outside of prison, with very few people actually maintaining the belief that he is innocent. The show contains universal truths but also couldn’t take place anywhere other than where it does and when it does, in a post-9/11 New York City. It approaches one crime from several different angles without ever losing the narrative or feeling unfocused. Each episode feels like it introduces us to a new major player just as essential as the one before, from the murder suspect himself to an attorney who lucks upon the case of his life to the retiring cop investigating one last criminal act and so on and so on. It is about the immigrant experience in NYC, the cruelty of the criminal-creating establishment known as Rikers Island, a legal system in which guilt and innocence are often afterthoughts, and, ultimately, a fascinating mystery. The mini-series does offer us a second suspect in the form of Andrea’s stepfather, played by Paul Sparks, an actor who excels at playing instantly unlikable men. Is he hiding a terrible secret or do we just assume the worst of him because he’s so introverted and cold? Followed by a third in the last hour of the finale (whom I won’t reveal). What will become of Nasir? Will he be punished for the crime he’s been accused of, justly or unjustly? The real tragedy is that the US system renders such questions largely irrelevant. Nasir’s family’s bank account will be bled regardless, and he’ll spend weeks or months on Rikers Island, staving off assaults by allying himself with a disgraced ex-boxer Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams). For all its procedural exactness and gallows humor, the miniseries is a tragedy about a society that punishes itself by signing off on a hobbled system of crime and punishment that creates more frustration and sadness than justice.
The narrative’s broad strokes are compelling, particularly as defensive attorney Jack Stone and the young Chandra (Amara Karan) begins to uncover the murder suspects who detective Dennis Box couldn’t be bothered to dig up, but it’s the textural flourishes that distinguish the miniseries from more formulaic courtroom fare, such as the continuing emphasis that Zaillian and Price place on the notion of ritual as cultural currency. We frequently see intake officers in police stations and courts, witnessing the rapport they do or don’t have with repeat offenders, or with foreigners they treat with contempt for displaying understandable ignorance to deliberately disorienting protocol. We often see Box or Stone exchanging embittered in-jokes with colleagues that convey a wealth of understanding of a world that gradually wears people down into indifferent, amoral cogs of figurative machines—an acknowledgement that’s symbolized by Stone’s painful foot eczema, which suggests years spent wading in muck. With Islam, immigration, xenophobia, misogyny, racial tension, economic disparity, and larger questions of innocence and guilt weighing over the proceedings, it’s astounding how compelling and hypnotic the miniseries remains throughout its length. This is the kind of drama that only comes along once in a very long while: one that can knock you flat, confound your expectations, expand your perspective, masterfully manipulate your mood, and leave you utterly trapped in its uniquely topical haze of lost souls searching for answers in a world that defies easy ones at every turn. A drama like this is nothing without its ensemble – and everything because of it. Turturro’s bitter yet commendable portrayal is mesmerizing, fleshing out the intricacies of a man caught between the more self-serving elements of his profession and an intrinsic desire to fight for something that may turn out to be worth the strain. Bill Camp, too, is staggering in how cleverly his rough-and-tumble detective works every angle to pump even the individuals he’s not interrogating for every last scrap of information and insight. Enough can’t be said about the mighty gravitas and menace Michael Kenneth Williams brings to his performance as a criminal who’s already committed himself to self-preservation in an environment designed to quash him. But its Riz Ahmed, who should have been Oscar-nominated for Nightcrawler, is best of all. As Naz, a caged animal who could be a lamb, a lion, or a snake, he’s downright chameleonic, sometimes courting our sympathies and other times throwing into question whether he’s deserving of them (as well as whether he might have been capable of the crime he steadfastly denies having committed). Ahmed thrives on the ambiguity. As miniseries gathers in tension and mounts in scale, his work remains its haunting, hypnotic center. Amara Karan, Peyman Moaadi, Poorna Jagannathan Jeannie Berlin and Sofia Black D’Elia also play their parts well. On the whole, ‘The Night Of’ is a dark gripping series which elevates the crime genre to a higher level with the help of its thought-provoking, wonderfully cast and terribly addictive story telling. Must watch!
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – HBO