Dark and Glittering

Review of HBO’s The Night Of

Australian Book Review Arts Update, September 9, 2016

Over the past fifteen years, television has steadily eclipsed film as the medium for prestige drama. US cable network HBO has been central to this, producing shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones) that, in visual sophistication and narrative scope, helped transform television into art. HBO’s new eight-part mini-series, The Night Of, sustains that high standard. Exemplifying the talent-shift from film, stage, and novels to television, this intelligent crime drama is created by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Zaillian and Oscar-nominated novelist–screenwriter Richard Price, whose credits include Schindler’s List, The Wire, and Gangs of New York. It is based on BAFTA-winning dramatist Peter Moffat’s BBC series Criminal Justice (2008). That heft shows throughout.

The Night Of centres on Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan, a Pakistani-American college student played by Riz Ahmed, who tutors the basketball team, lives with his parents, and stays teetotal as a relatively observant Muslim. Invited to an athletes’ party but stood up for a lift, Naz hastily ‘borrows’ his father’s cab. Over the following hours, Naz’s life unspools, first slowly, then with panicked speed. When Andrea Cornish, a damaged party-girl played beautifully by Sofia Black-D’Elia, mistakes him for a real cabbie, Naz agrees to drive her to the beach. Back at her expensive townhouse, lit by fairy-lights, Naz nervously takes drugs, tequila shots, and then has sex for the second time ever. After waking, groggy in the kitchen, Naz goes upstairs to say goodnight. He finds Andrea stabbed to death. Arterial blood streaks the wall. Knowing his innocence, but understanding how it looks, Naz runs. His arrest, remand, and prosecution form the show’s spine.

The creative team’s experience is clear throughout. The scripts are stunning – each scene impossibly lean, loaded with narrative and character development, yet never using a word more or less than necessary. While the cinematography occasionally risks overstatement, the visual language is sophisticated, with imagery that rewards careful viewing, and a dark, glittering aesthetic that captures Naz’s dream-turned-nightmare.

After Andrea’s death, a detailed procedural plays out, from Naz’s agonising wait in a police station (initially arrested for bad driving), to the crime scene, morgue, interrogation room, remand cell, on to lawyers, detective-work, violent survival in prison, and then a trial over the final episodes. The narrative space of television allows the audience to see a murder prosecution in fascinating detail – down to autopsy syringes, prison inductions. Like The Wire, this close study of the justice system prompts broader comment on its flaws: racial bias, bureaucratic cruelty, and the huge impact of a lawyer’s talent (or lack of it). In Naz’s case, he lucks on John Stone (John Turturro), a skilled but derided gumshoe hack. For Stone, Naz’s case offers personal and professional redemption, but he is driven mainly by a fierce belief in his client’s innocence – a light point in an otherwise bleak view of justice.

Alongside the procedural, The Night Of gives space to domesticity, allowing the show’s thematic argument – the damaging effects of the justice system on all participants – to unfold. Naz’s parents, played so elegantly by Poorna Jagannathan and Peyman Moaadi, suffer racial abuse, economic hardship, and the clawing tension of a father’s belief in a son’s innocence while a mother fears his guilt. Each major character – prosecutor, detective, lawyer – is shown in the quiet moments of their lives, and to rich effect. Central here is Stone, dramatised via his relationship with a son who loves but doesn’t respect him, his pursuit of a cure for crippling eczema, and his care (despite allergies) for Andrea’s abandoned cat. The generous screentime given to Stone, a dual protagonist with Naz, affords a novelistic exploration of his character. This, combined with Turturro’s Emmy-worthy performance, presents a flawed but very real hero – a shift from the HBO-era’s predilection for charismatic villains.

We get that with Naz, who embodies the destructive effects of the penal system. Denied bail, Naz is remanded at the infamous Rikers prison. There, a fellow inmate, the excellent Michael Kenneth Williams’ Freddy, teaches Naz to survive: shaved head, prison tats, heroin habit, savage violence. Naz’s moral journey, while narratively weaker than Stone’s procedural story-line, is physicalised exquisitely by Ahmed, who shifts so deftly from innocence to thuggery that a juxtaposing flashback in the finale to his character in the pilot reveals a shocking change.

While laudably depicting pervasive racial and religious biases in the justice system, and providing a much-needed Hollywood corrective in lead roles for minorities, the show has drawn criticism for focusing on African-American characters as perpetrators of prison violence. Of course, the counter-argument is that The Night Of highlights the shameful overrepresentation of African-American men in prisons, and the violence this dehumanising incarceration breeds. I didn’t buy Naz’s junior lawyer, Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), kissing him in a cell, an act that leads to her prospective disbarment. Basing Chandra’s legal failure on romantic feeling undercut a great female character.

Notwithstanding, The Night Of is exceptional television, with novelistic scope and the best of cinematic storytelling. Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that the show ‘effectively eradicates the notion of the two-hour American theatrical movie’. When it comes to prestige crime drama, I’m inclined to agree.

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