HBO has had a rocky last few years. Although, they air, arguably, the most critically acclaimed and watched drama in the world at the minute (Game of Thrones), the TV network has suffered some serious set-backs recently. Much of their recent output – Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl (which cost a reported $100 million to produce), the Laura Dern starring Enlightened, political satire The Brink, Damon Lindelof’s Lost follow up The Leftovers, season two of critical darling True Detective and the Duplass brothers’ Togetherness – suffered from either mixed reviews or a lack of viewers (sometimes both), leading to mass cancellations. They also spent a ton of money on shows which didn’t even make it to air such as Oscar-winner Steve McQueen’s Codes of Conduct, as well as two shows by Fight Club director David Fincher. On top of this, their next series expected to fill the void of Game of Thrones, Westworld, is reported to have suffered behind-the-scenes complications, having its premiere date postponed numerous times.
The above are all the reasons why HBO must be delighted with the surprise success of their crime-drama The Night of, an adaptation of BBC’s Criminal Justice by director Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action) and writer Richard Price (The Wire). The show tells the story of Naz (played by terrific character actor Riz Ahmed – Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne), a college student of Pakistani descent, who takes his father’s taxi out one night in order to go to a party. On the way, he is unable to turn off the cab’s light and a mysterious woman named Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) enters the car. The two drink, take pills, snort coke and have sex. The next morning, Naz awakens to find Andrea brutally killed. With his DNA all over the crime scene, Naz panics and attempts to flee but is eventually reprimanded by police for driving under the influence. Discovering his link to Andrea, Detective Box (an amazing Bill Camp) charges Naz for the murder. By chance, John Stone (John Turturro), a small-time lawyer with shades of Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill, begins to represent the accused.
The Night of is a show which constantly feels more intelligent than it has any right to be. For instance, take its pilot, entitled The Beach. At this point, how many times have viewers seen “the wrong man” plot utilised in TV and film. By now, it’s a staple of detective drama. How can somebody prove their innocence when all the evidence points to them? While, The Night of does not radically alter the format, it does interesting things with the trope. The Beach is almost as long than as a feature length movie, yet everything happens exactly as one would expect. However, the extra time is what makes the pilot so effective. One is aware the second Andrea enters Naz’s taxi that something terrible is about to happen. Yet, the show builds tension out of audience expectation, holding the camera longer at certain points, creating a sense of impending doom. Zaillian spends an agonizing amount of time focusing on Naz touching a knife (to cut limes for tequila) or on the gaze of observer of Naz and Andrea – all things which will be used against the protagonist in court at a future point. There Will Be Blood and Nightcrawler cinematographer Robert Elswit (who only worked on the pilot, laying an aesthetic groundwork for future D.O.P’s), contributes so much to the show’s menacing atmosphere. As Vikram Murthi of Vulture wrote: “he treats the frame like a shadowy Hell closing in on Naz”.
Following the end of the pilot, in which John Turturro’s quirky lawyer character appears, The Night of develops into a more standard crime show. However, even then the series brings ingenuity to the format in spades. Richard Price, who wrote each episode of The Night of broadcast so far (four out of eight), is a crime novelist who has also worked on acclaimed dramas such as The Wire. As a result, he brings to the show a heightened authenticity in both dialogue and the events which transpire. There are little moments where the show shifts away from Naz in order to portray the real-life goings on of a police-station or of the criminal justice system, complete with realistic legislative jargon and casual bureaucratic errors.
Also, in adapting the original British five-part series into an eight-partner, Price mutates the show into something similar to The Wire. Like the Baltimore set drama, The Night of uses its central story as a means of analysing something greater, in this case the different facets of the criminal justice system. For instance, we see the district attorney (played by Jeannie Berlin – excellent) who wants to save money by offering plea deals to avoid cases going to trial. We spend time with the detectives who are angered their suspects are receiving concessions. We get glimpses of a celebrity lawyer (played by Glenne Healy – brilliantly conniving) who takes controversial cases for free to gain exposure but cares little about ethics or about her client. Perhaps most interestingly, the show analyses the hierarchy on the other side of the law – in Rikers – New York’s main jail complex – where Naz finds himself awaiting trial. There, the richest criminal (Michael K. Williams – Omar in The Wire) bribes the guards in order to gain supplies, essentially becoming king of the prison.
While many critics have grown a little infuriated with John Stone’s subplot regarding his battle with eczema, I actually think it serves the drama well, adding levity and personality to the show. Some have argued it’s a metaphor for the justice system itself – like his feet, Stone depends on the criminal justice system to live but its infected. If I have a complaint at all, it’s that I want more of the other character’s personal struggles such as Bill Camp’s quiet, world-weary but arrogant Det. Box (he steals every scene).
The show, in its first four episodes, actually spends very little time on the investigation itself. However, there are one or two clues subtly placed in each episode that may hint at the true culprit for Andrea’s murder (or not if its anything like HBO’s similarly slow but hypnotic True Detective). For instance, Andrea’s step-father (House of Cards’ Paul Sparks) acts quite shady upon seeing his daughter’s slain corpse and is later seen arguing with a young man at her funeral. However, Andrea was a very enigmatic character (Naz only learned her name after being arrested) with a dark past slowly being uncovered so it is entirely possible, we haven’t met her killer yet. Either way, The Night of is the hit HBO needed (it already has three times the viewership of Vinyl) and is essential for T.V fanatics looking for the next True Detective or The Wire.